What Is Justice?

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Every man loves justice at another man’s expense.
~ Anonymous

One of the emptiest words in our culture is "justice." Its vacuous quality is what makes it so popular: it requires little in the way of focused, intelligent explication to employ it. To those on the political "left," justice" gets translated into a demand for money to be taken from some and bestowed upon others. Those on the political "right" use it as a plea for the building of more prisons and the hiring of more police officers to ferret out more persons to fill them. When people tell me "I demand justice," my response is to warn them to temper their insistence, as they might just get it!

When pressed for a definition, I reply that justice is the redistribution of violence. In its simplest form, X commits a wrong upon Y, for which Y demands retaliation against X. In its more complex form in our collectivized world, fifteen Saudis, two men from the United Arab Emirates, one Egyptian, and one Lebanese join in the 9/11 attacks on the World Trade Center buildings. As these men were killed in the process, the demands for "justice" led most Americans to accept the bombing and killing of innocent men, women, and children in such unrelated places as Afghanistan and Iraq! Justice and rationality have little to do with one another.

The death of Robert McNamara brought home the meaningless nature of this concept. This war criminal — like so many others of the home-grown type — was, perhaps more than any other, responsible for the deaths of more than a million innocent victims during the Vietnam War. He knew the war to be bogus and unwinnable, yet continued to insist upon more lives being invested in this evil scheme. His co-conspirator, Lyndon Johnson, helped to cover up their evil deeds by awarding McNamara with a Medal of Freedom. If Americans had been as self-righteous in punishing the crimes of their own leaders as they insist inflicting upon foreign monsters, both these men would have ended their careers on the gallows.

The same fate would have awaited the likes of Churchill, Truman, Stalin, and other perpetrators of "allied" crimes. The head of the British RAF Bomber Command in the latter half of World War II was Arthur "Bomber" Harris (also known as "Butcher" Harris even within the RAF). Harris — later awarded a knighthood — was responsible for the saturation bombing of German cities that had not the slightest military significance; his purpose, rather, being to inflict massive death as an end in itself. The firebombing of the beautiful city of Dresden — so well captured in Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse Five — was rationalized on the grounds that there were no other German cities left to bomb. Harris, along with Churchill, would surely have swung from the gallows if "justice" had meant anything other than sanctimonious revenge visited upon the losing side, or what others have called "victor’s justice."

Harry Truman’s decision to drop atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki for the purpose of warning the Soviet Union of the state of American destructiveness, merited his trip to the scaffold. Octogenarians — with their "U.S.S. Missouri" baseball caps — continue to babble the line that this act of butchery inflicted upon a civilian population was necessary to end the war and save American lives. That Japan was trying to surrender before these cities were attacked, and that American POWs were among the thousands of victims of this attack, refutes the lie.

A date with the hangman should also have awaited the likes of Henry Kissinger, Madeleine Albright, George W. Bush, Dick Cheney, and . . . well, you begin to see the pattern: deaths visited upon the men, women, and children of other countries are to be excused, even honored, when carried out by American political leaders.

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In these post-Bush years, there has been an effort, by some, to "bring to justice" the war criminals responsible for the unprovoked attacks on the Afghan and Iraqi people. As evil as the perpetrators of these crimes were, I strongly oppose such efforts. In my view, waiting until after these moral slugs left office to inflict punishment is a sheer act of moral cowardice. It would be akin to the victims of the playground bully waiting until the tormentor had broken his leg and was hobbling around on crutches before mounting a resistance to his wrongs. Where were such demands being made in the pre-2008 years, when power, itself, should have been called to account for its wrongdoings? On the other hand, waiting until after the criminals had left office to voice moral objections to their actions, doesn’t embarrass the office itself, does it? As with the routine practice of punishing underlings — such as those who tortured at Abu Ghraib instead of those atop the pyramid — such scapegoating is designed to save the face of the political system, which all worshippers of state power demand.

Is it possible to take an effective but peaceful stance against evil; to end such practices and hold the perpetrators accountable without, in the process, engaging in the same kind of retaliatory violence that defined the crime itself? This is the challenge for libertarians: to live with integrity; wherein one’s principles are sufficient for all circumstances, without a need to rationalize their abandonment because one has not thought through peaceful alternatives.

One of my favorite movies is Peter Weir’s film, Witness. The key scene involves murderous, corrupt police officers who have traced an honest cop — intent on bringing them to "justice" — to an Amish community where he has been recovering from wounds inflicted upon him by one of the criminals. At the end of the movie, the surviving evildoer — and the only person with a gun — confronts the hero in the presence of a number of Amishmen. The Amish are pacifists, and would probably take no violent action against the corrupt policeman, who is effectively disarmed by what I have always regarded as the double-meaning to the film’s title: their being "witnesses" to wrongdoing.

So much of mankind is caught up in frenzied efforts to rectify historic wrongs, not against living perpetrators on behalf of surviving victims, but reaching into distant history. The Turkish government’s World War I genocide against Armenians continues to enflame persons of Armenian descent. Extending the timeline back further, the U.S. Senate recently passed a resolution apologizing for slavery. Shall we soon hear demands to have the Italian government apologize for having thrown Christians to the lions?

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You and I are responsible — and accountable — for what we do, for one basic reason: you and I, alone, are in control of our energies and of how we choose to employ them. My children and grandchildren bear no responsibility for any actions of mine in which they did not participate. To think otherwise is to engage in the most primitive of mindsets: collectivism. It is popular among many blacks to demand reparations (i.e., money) to compensate them for the 19th century evils of slavery. Who is to be taxed to pay for these reparations, and who are to be the recipients? Is it not clear that race, alone — that most vulgar expression of collectivism — will answer such questions?

My grandfather and three of his brothers fought for the North in the Civil War. The three brothers died in the war. If a reparations measure is enacted into law, will I — along with my children and grandchildren — be exempt from the tax on the grounds that we are the descendants of one who fought for the alleged purpose of ending slavery? Furthermore, will we be entitled to reparations ourselves? The deaths of these three great-uncles — before they had a chance to have children of their own — has deprived us of a great number of cousins with whom we would otherwise share our genes.

The farther back one goes in an effort to rectify a perceived injustice, the more troublesome the process becomes. If you or I were to try to trace our ancestry back two-thousand years — sixty-seven generations — taking into account only our direct predecessors (i.e., parents, grandparents, great-grandparents, etc.) we would be unable to account for more than a small handful of persons. Mathematics alone informs us that each of us has precisely 147,573,952,589,676,412,928 direct ancestors during this very short period of time.

This number reminds us that we are all related to one another. Each of us is a descendant of both wrongdoers and victims. We can be reasonably assured that one of our ancestors raped another of our ancestors, producing yet another of our biological predecessors. Such an act was both criminal and immoral, and yet you and I would not be alive today had it not taken place. Is there any sanity in a modern-day effort to rectify this ancient wrong? Must I condemn myself for the actions of one of my ancestors; ought I, then, to apologize to myself as the descendant of the victim of this rape? Should I, perhaps, take money out of my right pocket and place it in my left pocket as "reparations" for this evil deed?

As we can observe from the reporting of current news stories, our thinking — as well as the failure to think — can mess up our lives. Far better than trying to undo ancient wrongs would be to learn from our history and apply the lessons to present behavior. In our efforts to engage in collective mea culpas, we too easily forget the impact that an unresolved injustice can have on our consciousness; a forgetfulness that allows us to repeat such wrongs in the present. I am reminded of a reparations measure of a few years ago, in which Congress provided token compensation to Japanese-Americans who had been imprisoned, because of their race, by the U.S. government during World War II. I recall the response of one victim of this practice, who refused to accept the money. His reasoning was that, in taking the money, the wrong would have been expunged; he would have been compensated for his victimization. Such wrongdoing should remain in our minds, not for the purpose of generating a sense of collective guilt — which can only produce more state-serving conflict — but as history’s warning of the dangers that inhere in identifying ourselves with political systems. Far better to let such evil acts remain a stain on the government that engaged in them.

Butler Shaffer [send him e-mail] teaches at the Southwestern University School of Law. He is the author of the newly-released In Restraint of Trade: The Business Campaign Against Competition, 1918—1938 and of Calculated Chaos: Institutional Threats to Peace and Human Survival. His latest book is Boundaries of Order.

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