Punishment is Done

“Justice is done,” soundbites the President. The President, along with the entire world, appears to have confused justice with punishment. This confusion goes way beyond the assassination of Osama bin Laden. Whenever a crime is committed, there is talk about bringing the perpetrator to “justice.” But what people actually desire is some sort of punishment that seems to be commensurate with the harm done.

In fact, according to Dictionary.com,  justice means:

1. the quality of being just; righteousness, equitableness, or moral rightness: to uphold the justice of a cause.

2. rightfulness or lawfulness, as of a claim or title; justness of ground or reason: to complain with justice.

3. the moral principle determining just conduct.

To me, justice means fairness. As a verb, it might mean to restore fairness, or to make right. If someone smashes your car, justice might mean that person giving you a new car. It’s hard to say what justice would mean in the context of a mass murder like the terrorist attacks of September, 2001. Putting someone on trial for the crime would be a step toward justice, but it wouldn’t bring back the dead. Neither would killing the perpetrator, or killing a lot people whom we associate with the perpetrator – that would be revenge, which is a type of punishment.

I’m not arguing the rightness or wrongness of revenge killing. It certainly appears to bring happiness to a lot of people. I’m not saying that it’s not justified, or that it doesn’t fit into some larger scheme designed to eventually reduce violence. But I am saying that it is not justice, it is punishment, and it is not what a society that understood justice would be clamoring for or celebrating in the name of “justice.”

Click the flower for my unsolicited advice to President Obama regarding Afghanistan:


10 Responses to Punishment is Done

  1. Eric says:

    Obviously you didn’t lose anyone on 9/11. Obviously you aren’t considering the careful thought and meticulous planning that went into master-minding slaughtering thousands of human beings over the last couple of decades. I’m sure you’re sitting in a little apartment, tapping on your keyboard while thousands of real men protect your freedoms. A shame really. Stay safe citizen. Oh, don’t get up. Just type on your little keyboard and think you are making some kind of positive difference in the world. We’ll do the real work…make the real sacrifices.


  2. Elijah says:

    Justice is not nessecarily the same as fairness. In fact, if you equate justice with fairness, then “justice” would be much harsher than the death of one man in return for what happened on 9/11


    • EricIndiana says:

      Perhaps “fairness” isn’t the best word to describe justice. But justice also isn’t the same as making things equal. So, if a child breaks a lamp, justice isn’t going & breaking the child’s toy.

      But I totally agree that justice for an atrocity that killed thousands of people isn’t the death of one man or even thousands of people. I don’t know if there can be “justice” for something like that because nothing you can do can make it right.


  3. Samir Hafza says:

    One can easily argue that punishment is the means; justice is the end. According to American legal system, the best way to achieve justice is by applying punishment. I don’t think Obama was confusing the two: when he talks about justice being done by killing Osama, he’s referring to the end, not the means.

    The end (justice) may not mean bringing back the dead. Rather, it is preventing the murderer from committing more crimes (which Osama was set on doing till the end) AND deterring others from committing similar acts. So, deterrence as well as preventing more crimes by the perpetrator is the just and “fair” thing to do.

    Other legal systems, however, see justice differently. When a CIA agent kills two Pakistani citizens out of fear for his life (or in a road rage), he ends up being let go, after the families of the slain receive an apology and a hefty payment that would more than feed and educate them. Was justice achieved in this situation? Since the dead could not be brought back (as you argued), the families-not the Pakistani legal system-had the power to decide. They could have chosen a trial and a sure imprisonment of the CIA agent. Instead, they decided to forgive him and use the money for improving their lives. Thus justice.

    If the two killings had taken place on American soil, there would’ve been no way for the slain family members to decide the fate of the killer. No matter how much forgiveness they’re willing to bestow on him, the “punishing” legal system supersedes everything, in order to achieve “justice,” the way the American society has defined it.

    Going back to Osama and Obama: Even if you applied the Muslim legal system to Bin Laden’s case, it would take every single family of the thousands of victims for whom Osama was responsble to forgive him. That would be impossible, of course. Therefore, eliminating him is the only just thing to do–again, in order to prevent him from committing more crimes. Vengeance, it can be argued, is a by-product.

    Samir Hafza


  4. Samir Hafza says:

    To Eric (response #1):

    You’re being a bit defensive–needlessly. As the writer has stated, he was NOT “arguing the rightness or wrongness of revenge killing.” He was simply trying to differentiate between the meaning of the terms, “justice” and “punishment.” Consider it an intellectual exercise.

    If the writer wants to tap on his keyboard, that’s his choice. Some people use their brains, others their brawns. I am not buying this silly talk about “real men” who are “protecting our freedom” by doing the “real work.” They signed up for it. It was THEIR choice to join the military. It is a paying job for them. For most, it’s a way out.

    You need to talk to the 150,000 soldiers that went to fight in Iraq when there was no al-Qaeda there. I know a few. They certainly don’t feel they were protecting my freedom or yours or their families’. They certainly did some “hard work,” but protecting freedom? What reedom? The rationale for going in was changed THREE times by a president who hid behind his family’s influence in order to evade military service.

    It is every citizen’s right and DUTY to question our government–and, yes, that includes the military.

    CHOOSING to serve in the military does not make someone more important or more noble than the rest of us.


    • EricIndiana says:

      That’s true – but you know that ever since 9/11, everyone who wears a uniform is officially hailed as a “hero.” It takes courage to wear a uniform and go to war, but our culture ignores the courage that it takes to not wear a uniform and to criticize the dominant paradigm.


      • Samir Hafza says:

        You’re right. Boxer Mohammad Ali did show the courage of not wearing a uniform. That ended up costing him the World Championship title(s), a 5-year sentence, and a heavy career damper in having to stay out of the ring for 3+ years.
        He was hailed as a hero by an HBO special, many years later. But what was the use? He lost the best years of his boxing life because of his courage.


        • EricIndiana says:

          We’d have to ask Mohammad Ali how he felt about his decision. I’ve never read anything by him, so I don’t know. But I will say that he was acting in the best tradition of conscientious objection, and he was a hero for many people far beyond any TV special.

          Acting according to ones conscience doesn’t guarantee personally good results, but then again neither does going along with a war one doesn’t believe in. Either way, bad things can happen.

          I think Martin Luther King was right to temper his principle of accepting suffering for the cause without retaliation with his advice of “personal commitment” to a cause. In other words, before one goes and stands up for a cause in a way that is likely to bring about personal suffering, one should take the time to assess whether it is worth it in the long run. In some cases it is for some people and not for others.

          So, back to my original point, which I may have made too clumsily in my last reply, people who risk everything to take to the streets, say in places like Iran or Syria, or for that matter anywhere, should be celebrated as “heroes” far more often.


          • Samir Hafza says:

            Just for the sake of argument, I’m gonna be the cynic’s advocate: I think MLK had decided to “temper” his behavior because he was smart enough to realize the futility of “retaliation” or violent acts against the guns of the white racists. So he decided to kill them with kindness. That was his only option of winning and implementing change in the law. That does not make one a hero.

            It would be interesting to ask ourselves, “What would MLK have done if he had the means to use force to achieve his goals?” Would he have continued to advocate “tempering” one’s struggle or would he have chosen the easier (and shorter) option of using force, thereby rescuing more blacks from further suffering? Taking the cynical view, I am tempted to go with the latter. This is not, in any way, to reduce his noble goals or his power of self discipline that proved very effective in the long run. The crux of my argument is, what would he have done if he had other options?

            Similarly, the Syrian and Iranian “heroes” that have taken to the streets may not be as heroic if they had the means to shoot at Assad and Ahmadinejad’s tanks.

            We are too quick to bestow the title “hero” onto people without giving it much thought. It seems that the greater the loss or suffering of our “heroes,” the quicker we dish out that title. It’s akin to funeral services or tributes to the dead. The living have them in order to come to grips with the death of their loved ones. It’s all about the living and nothing to do with the dead.

            People tend to agree that selflessness is the main ingredient of heroism. Thus a soldier who dies encapsulating himself to a grenade to save the lives of his comrades is considered more of a hero (by the type of medal he posthumously receives) than the soldier who dies simply being in the wrong place at the wrong time. A father who doesn’t think twice about missing the final minutes of a Miami Heat-Boston Celtics overtime game in order to read to his son a bedtime story is considered a better father than the one who tries to bungle both the watching and reading.

            But, then again, Bin Laden had given up very comfortable living in order to serve his anti-American cause. That was selflessness on his part. Does that make him a hero?

            OK, I’m going to stop now, before I decide that the word “hero” is meaningless.

            Samir Hafza


  5. yuval says:

    Our notion of justice is necessarily derived from the Biblical notion. In the Bible, justice is harsh and mercy is its opposite. When we say that someone has been brought to justice, we mean that that person has been punished. God balances his justice with mercy–or so we pray.


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