Justice vs. Vengeance

People hate criminals, and I don’t mean that in a broad idealistic sense.  I mean that, in real life, people genuinely despise criminals.  I had to qualify the last sentence with in real life, as I’m well aware how much we love to cheer on the bad guys in movies, but whenever there is an actual trial going on, we still tend to side against the guy/gal being prosecuted; often for good reasons.  We simply can’t help but voice our desire to see justice against the perpetrator/s, so that we as a society can be assured about the efficiency of our judiciary system is keeping us safe.  (When I say “we,” I am not trying to be rhetorical or play up some kind of subtle “ignorance of the masses” shtick,  since I have no hesitations about including myself in the aforementioned group of people.)

In the western world, prisons are meant to be institutions of punishment and rehabilitation; a place where those who step outside the law can be safely secluded from the general population, making sure they don’t cause any further harm to the public, and a place where the dangerous behavior of criminals can be corrected so that they can reenter public life as law abiding citizens (it must also be kept in mind that much of this is dependent on the nature and circumstances of the crime one was prosecuted for).  However, I have to admit, that when I hear that a criminal has received a sentence for a crime, I’m not concerned about any of the above; what I care about is satisfying my own indirect sense of vengeance against the offender–and from what I can gather, the prison system (at least in the U.S., but I suspect other places too) is regulated in such a way as to feed this thirst for punishment I (and much of the public) have towards those who fail to follow the strict laws we choose to abide by on a daily basis.

Friedrich  Nietzsche once wrote on judicial punishment that “It does not cleanse the criminal, it is no atonement; on the contrary, it pollutes worse than the crime does” (Nietzsche, The Dawn, section 236).  It is no secret that convicts often leave prison with a better understanding of criminal networks than they had on entering it.  We know this, and we largely don’t care.  We seem to be satisfied enough with the initial sense of indignation we experienced at removing the felon from public eye, hence any further commitment that might be required of us to reintegrate the person back into the greater sphere of society is lost on us.  The desire for rehabilitation has been all but removed from the correctional program, because what we truly care about is revenge on those who have dared to put us–and our communities–in harms way, not their eventual return to our fold; in fact, as far as we’re concerned, they are social lepers.

We deride any notion of being soft on criminal offenders, because our judicial process must send a clear message to others who might be inclined to commit a felony.  After all, the argument goes, what’s to discourage potential criminals unless they understand the great misery that will befall on them if they decide to step outside the law.  But I see a major fault in reasoning here.  It is true that many of us are discouraged from committing crimes because we fear the consequences that might result from our illegal actions; however, it is also true that many of the very people who do commit crimes are just as informed of the possible repercussions as the rest of us who don’t.  Granted, most (if not all) of them don’t expect to get caught, thus it can be argued that the real threat of punishment becomes important only as a result of backward-looking reasoning.  But the same could also be said for the rest of us, who don’t dare to step out of the arm of the law.

For those of us who live in metropolitan areas, the jail cells are largely occupied by individuals who are repeat offenders, completely aware of the grim reality that awaits convicted criminals.  A natural response we might have to this is to conclude that the judiciary is not harsh enough; which, while understandable, ignores the fact that in the U.S., states that still implement the death penalty (the harshest consequence that can be administered to convicted criminals), do not average out a lower crime rate than states that have done away with corporeal punishment.  Therefore, it is disingenuous to conclude a correlation between the severity of judicial punishment and criminal deterrence (this, of course, applies mainly to the judicial system of democratic countries, because the nature of the system still offers some level of protection from judiciary abuse).

To be perfectly honest, every argument I can come up with as to why I feel this instinctive need for vengeance against criminals can be safely attributed to post hoc reasoning on my part.  For years I thought the source of this fallacy to be the result of a misguided superiority complex, by which I subconsciously placed my social worth above that of the lowly convicts.  But, upon further reflection, I’m becoming convinced that the opposite might be true; I want vengeance against the criminal because he has made been feel inferior.  He has made me feel restrained by the system, which he has so casually ignored; for this I want his ill-earned freedom stripped from him.  Consciously, I’m calling for the criminal to be taught the virtue of being humane, yet, subconsciously, I want the criminal to be dehumanized to reassure me about the safety of the rest of human society.  Thus, without even wanting to, I’m making the entire notion of justice a measly vendetta to satisfy my own trivial personal impulses.

Perhaps, I’m being overly melodramatic, and reading to deep into things, thereby creating problems that don’t exists outside my vibrant imagination; I’m fully open to this possibility.  But if I’m even partly right about our tendency to place more importance on our need for vengeance, rather than fair and unbiased justice, is it proper of us to simply rationalize it away as irrelevant–instead of at least acknowledging it head on?


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