What is Justice?

Something about the announcement of the creation of a military tribunal to try the perpetrators of the September 11th mass murders has not settled well with me. I am not particularly concerned with the punishment of the guilty, being that I generally subscribe to the “Nuke ’em till they glow and shoot them in the dark” theory on the punishment of evildoers. However, the means being used to discover the guilty is something that I have some doubts upon. I have attempted to reconcile this unease with several personal discussions about the practical nature of a “system of justice”, but to no avail. So, with your kind indulgence, I am going to try to start at the root of the problem and work my way up. In other words, answer the question, “what is justice?” If I can answer that, I am hopeful that my unease at the practical nature of “expedient” courts can be resolved.

So, what is “Justice”? Justice is defined by Webster’s Dictionary as:

1a. The maintenance or administration of what is just esp. by the impartial adjustment of conflicting claims or the assignment of merited rewards or punishments. 1b. JUDGE. 1c. The administration of the law, esp: the establishment or determination of rights according to the rules of law or equity. 2a. The quality of being just, impartial or fair. 2b. (1) The principle or ideal of just dealings or right action. (2) Conformity to this principle or ideal: RIGHTEOUSNESS. 2c. The quality of conforming to law. 3. Conformity to truth, fact or reason.

The first two of these definitions deal with the practical nature of justice. The third is the one we should start with. Taking it at face value, to administer justice is to live by using your faculties of reason to ascertain the truths/facts of the world. But how does that get us any closer to the proper way to root out and prosecute evil? Well, I guess we would have to answer the question of what is evil. That is a treatise of its own. Hell, every culture, religion and epoch has produced volumes of work on that subject. I guess they have on justice as well, but we all must do are part.

Let’s just say, for the purpose of this work, that evil is actions or deeds that run contrary to the truth of existence. If that sounds like a weak definition of evil, here is an example of what I mean. If we take the right to life as an unalienable right (a fact of the world), then to take that life in the pursuit of ill gotten gains (e.g. murder) would be to deny the truth of existence.

So where does that leave us? At the root, justice is the recognition of truth, evil is the denial of truth and to dispense justice is to decide the good (“justness”) or evil of an action. Ah, now we’re getting somewhere.

On September 11th horrendously evil acts were perpetrated by ruthless men set upon the achievement of the destruction of life and liberty. These evil men deserve the strongest measure of justice possible and all effort must be made to bring it to them. The United States has the crowning achievement of a rights-based judicial system. A system based firmly on and individual’s unalienable rights to “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness”. Rights that can only be taken away when our system finds irrefutable evidence that the individual has taken those very rights from another. For this to happen, the accused must be able to state his case and to confront his accusers with his own faculty of reason and judgement. Yes, this does mean that more guilty men will go free in order to protect the minority of the accused innocents. However, this notion, that these rights are so precious that we must give every possible means to the accused to keep those rights, is why this country is the bastion of liberty that it is.

When it comes time to prosecute the offenders of September 11th, the same standard of justice that we use to hand down punishments to the most common thug must be used to try these most vile of murders. If it is not, then we have forsaken those principles that put us on the side of justice. That we are a people who value the lives of our fellow men (as well as our own) and will fight to protect them. But also, that we who value our rights will not take them at the expense of the innocent.

Now the argument will come that in times of war, certain “liberties” must be taken in the name of expediency. I will counter that wartime is exactly the time when our values must remain as strong as ever. To win a war, you must maintain the values you are fighting for. If we act with expediency at the cost of justice then we have weakened the very core that we are protecting.

So, let us find the men who conspired to these recent murders. Try them on the merits of the evidence and let the chips fall where they may. If they are guilty, let them be found so by our great system of justice and not by our fears or insecurities. Like so many of my thoughts, Shakespeare summed it up completely in many fewer words: “He who the sword of heaven will bear should be as holy as severe.”