Sunday, September 07, 2014

A primal thirst for revenge and a deficit of justice

Peter Beinart has written a much discussed article at the Atlantic contending that, in response the Islamic State's theatrical beheadings, the administration is striving to manage a "Jacksonian" moment in U.S. politics when an insult to our honor sends us howling for revenge. In consequence, we get Veep Joe Biden posturing about chasing down the perps to the "gates of Hell." Very swashbuckling. And we have the right wing howling to impeach Obama for being insufficiently stupidly bellicose.

I don't think much of Beinart's historical typology. Sure, such intellectual edifices sometimes serve to simplify a moment, but no historian can take them seriously; national experience is much more idiosyncratic and granular than these mind games can capture.

But many of us do get swept up in demanding revenge -- not accountability, but raw "equivalent" barbarism -- when our metaphorical noses are rubbed in vicious crimes.

While working on the SAFE campaign to end death sentences in California [short story: 2012 initiative; we lost narrowly], I was forced to ponder why so many people cling to the idea that horrible, violent criminals should be executed for their deeds rather than safely locked away for life. And very gradually, partially by talking with relatives and friends of victims of crimes, I got it: what people want is only superficially revenge. What we really want is justice.

And the United States does not, for most people, offer a confidence that we live in a place and time which reliably delivers just outcomes.

Mostly, most of us get along with a minor unease. But we experience enough daily unjust irritants that we cannot be trusting. Why, we had one yesterday: we'd jumped through all the required hoops (and even had our checks cashed) to maintain health insurance while away from San Francisco, but suddenly we found we'd been canceled. Oh sure, we got the snafu fixed -- but this set off an inner cri de couer: "we've been wronged!"

And that sort of recurrent daily minor injustice is nothing on what happens to people like the African American residents of towns like Ferguson. Thank goodness the shooting of Michael Brown unleashed an explosion of protest. That's what should happen when justice is absent for years and lifetimes.

The easy American jump to demanding violent revenge is fed by the daily injustices of our lives. Our politicians know they must feed the beast -- demand an execution, bomb someone -- all to reduce the pressure.

This is not how I choose to live, but that is not easy to accomplish.


Rain Trueax said...

One reason people wanted the death penalty was seeing repeat offenders get out of prison, no matter how assured they would not. Oregon had that happen with a brutal rapist who had killed, got out after I think maybe 20 years and quickly started in again with killing women. When life means life with no possibility of parole, people are more open to it instead of death-- and with all the ones being proven innocent by DNA after 20 years, it makes sense not just for economic reasons. It might be more cruel to imprison someone for life even though it is cheaper; so a desire for revenge might even fit life in prison. But it had to mean it and in the past, it did not. AND if you believe in reincarnation, life in prison is far smarter where you can hope they learn something in those many years imprisoned and at least you aren't immediately recycling them ;)

Globe it the most right wing of the tabloids and I don't look at it even when I go though check outs. I think they are all owned now by the right but it's the one that has for a long time put out every sleezy story against Obama that it can make up including about his sexual orientation and marriage. It appeals to the extreme right and that's about the only ones.

I think a lot of people want to go after ISIS or ISIL now based on their threats to encourage terrorism in other countries and how they use it there. That doesn't take a desire for revenge but instead more one of survival instict.

Rain Trueax said...

The thing though that I have said other places regarding ISIS is what keeps it from arising again in a new form which is kind of what we see with the new extremist groups across Africa and the Middle East? Those who just want to kill the bad guy don't see how complex this all really is. We can't wallow in 'trying to understand them,' but we also can't lose sight of the bigger picture regarding why this works and what might stop it. I think that's what Obama is trying to figure out and not just using US power and might. It's also what the right will never like. They want simple answers which is why they always vote for simpletons!

janinsanfran said...

Hi Rain -- you are so right that a promise to lock up an offender for life must be kept. And a mistaken release breaks the fundamental trust in the government that we have to have to be willing to forgo the instinct to just kill the perp.

Most folks I know who are deeply involved in prison issues consider "life without parole" much harsher than death.

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