Tuesday, April 26, 2011


In the local newspaper this morning, a small article, with photo, alerted the public to a Level 3 sex offender living in the community. Level 3 sex offenders are those who have been judged as highly likely to commit further offenses of the same nature. They have done jail time and now, by statute, must do their time out-of-jail ... publicly cited as a potential pariah in the community.

Yesterday, various news organizations scrutinized the paperwork that allowed "terrorist" detainees to be held for years at Guantanamo in Cuba. Many of the detainees had been held with little or no concrete evidence. They were not granted trials.

In the furor that followed the Sept. 11, 2001, destruction of the World Trade Center and the American invasion of Afghanistan, all kinds of people were swept up, sometimes tortured, and then just left in a limbo it is hard to imagine. Some were no doubt bad guys. Some were not. Sorting out one from the other was apparently not on the agenda of a country that can elevate its hopes to be "just." The country was encouraged to be afraid and in that fear to overlook one of its own best potentialities.

In the wake of the Dec. 7, 1941, Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, then-President Franklin Roosevelt, with the concurrence of the Supreme Court, set up internment camps for Japanese-descent people living in the United States. These people were classified as "enemy aliens" and were given 10 days to close up shop and leave the homes they had lived in for years. Germans and Italians faced a similar fate. It was a time of fear and in times of fear, especially state-sanctioned fear, justice took a beating.

After some discussion, the Greek philosopher Plato described justice as "each man doing his own work." His reasoning was better than anything I could make up, but his conclusion still leaves the question hanging -- what is justice where the rubber hits the road, where human frailty and desire and fear run off in 40 different directions at once? People can wax pretty serious about justice, the need for it, the common good that it may bolster ... but what the hell is it? Without it, barbarism gains an unassailable footing. But with it ... with it, its lack of free-standing, agreed-upon meaning whittles away at its core.

As far as I can see, justice is a hope. It is not an achievement. It is a goal, but it is unattainable because the very people it might serve are alive and cannot be subjected to labels, whether lofty or base. What is alive is limitless, segueing without effort from aspect to aspect. Trying to nail down what is alive is like trying to nail Jell-O to the wall. It doesn't work and yet without making the effort, how could anyone know that? Justice is a serious matter and yet the seriousness does not mean that it can be held in place. Perhaps it is like the Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart's observation about pornography in which he said that although he might not be able to define it, still, "I know it when I see it."

It is galling and cruel to see injustices visited on the very people who might long for the comforts of justice. It is galling and cruel to see justice twisted for personal gain. It is like swimming in a pool of chocolate milk -- so delicious on the one hand, so capable of drowning its adherents on the other.

A dictionary definition of "justice" strikes me as posing more questions than it answers:

-- the fact that something is reasonable and fair
-- treatment of people that is fair and morally right
-- the legal process of judging and punishing people
-- a fair result or punishment from a law courta judge in a law court in the U.S.
-- used as a title before the name of a judge in the U.K.
Maybe the best anyone can do is to find what justice there may be in their own hearts and then nourish it in the sure and certain knowledge that any conclusion would be premature.

Just noodling.


  1. In my first class at law school, my criminal law professor wrote the word "justice" on the blackboard and said to us, "take a good look, because this is probably the last time you'll see that word in your legal careers." Having practiced in the New York City courts, I can say with some certainty that while you might be able to find justice in the intimacy of human relationships, it is in scant supply in the judicial system.

  2. I seem to remember a line from Galapagos by Kurt Vonnegut... It was a lovely green planet 'til the big brains came along. Our oversized brains sport oversized imaginations. We can imagine justice, straight lines, things that don't exist in nature. We can imagine ourselves right out of the moment. A shame we can't imagine ourselves back.