Every time I’ve written about morality, I’ve received strong, polarized reactions, and I imagine this time will be no different. But as we’ve all been afforded an opportunity to reexamine—and perhaps redefine—our concept of justice with the recent killing of Osama bin Laden, despite my trepidation, I feel compelled to share my thoughts.
For me, the tragedy of 9/11 was perhaps slightly more personal than for many as I knew someone who was in the first plane that struck the World Trade Center. In all fairness, we were more acquaintances than good friends, but when I heard the news he’d been killed in the attack, I had two distinct reactions. First, a stark image came into my mind of what his last few moments might have been like, adrenaline surging through me as I pictured the fear he must have felt knowing he was about to die—followed by my imagining of what I hope was only a split second of searing pain as his body was vaporized by the explosion. Second, like most people I know, I became angry.
It was a righteous anger, rising up not out of a desire to feel powerful or wrest back control that had been somehow stolen from me, but rather from my indignation at what I considered an almost inconceivable injustice.
At the time I had no thought of it, but since bin Laden’s death, I’ve been wondering just where my notion of justice came from and how I learned it. I’d always presumed it had come from the way I’d been raised. But now research is beginning to suggest that human beings are actually endowed with an innate sense of fairness from birth. In David Brooks’ book The Social Animal, he writes:
“Yale professor Paul Bloom and others conducted an experiment in which they showed babies a scene featuring one figure struggling to climb a hill, another figure trying to help it, and a third trying to hinder it. At as early as six months, the babies showed a preference for the helper over the hinderer. In some plays, there was a second act. The hindering figure was either punished or rewarded. In this case, the eight-month-olds preferred a character who was punishing the hinderer over ones being nice to it.”
In other words, the Biblical concept of “an eye for an eye” may very well have its origins not in culture but neurology. Which brings me to the central point I want to make: when all is said and done, perhaps our concept of justice is nothing more than a way to legitimize our desire for revenge. Perhaps we attach to justice the connotations of “right” and “good” simply to make ourselves feel better about our need to balance the scales.
Balancing the scales certainly does feel emotionally satisfying. But consider the following thought experiment: suppose we were to develop a technology that enabled us to awaken in people who demonstrated little to no capacity for it a strong sense of revulsion to seeing others suffer? Not by a method akin to the approach depicted in the movie A Clockwork Orange in which sociopath Alex (no relation) was made to feel physically ill each time he witnessed violence through classical conditioning, but rather through a humane method that brought to life dormant feelings of decency, compassion, and wisdom. What if we’d been able to turn bin Laden into an honest-to-goodness Gandhi?
My point isn’t to leave reality behind here or to suggest that a technology that could bring about this result will ever be possible, but rather to deconstruct the elements that give rise to our instinctive revulsion to evil and what constitutes justice in responding to it. If bin Laden had truly been able to see the error of his ways, to suffer horribly for his crimes at the hands of his own conscience, and perhaps had wanted to dedicate his life to making reparations (as repentant felons in our prisons have been occasionally known to do), would we have felt punishing him was the just thing to do?
I’m sure many of us still would. But I wonder if punishing people for the crimes they commit, apart from the practical side effect of protecting the rest of us, actually represents good. Does anyone ever deserve to suffer? I’m sure many people would answer yes, but I’m still struggling to agree. Does bin Laden’s role as the mastermind of 9/11 make it so impossible to remember he was once a three-year-old boy himself who, much like my own son, wanted nothing more than a hug from his mom and a smile from his dad (or who could have had he grown up in different circumstances)? I know to even entertain these thoughts will appall many who are rightly concerned more with the lives he cut short than with the theoretical traumas of his childhood or his indoctrination into morally abhorrent beliefs (e.g., kill the infidel). But next to my relief that he’s gone lies a sense of sadness that the little boy he once was (or might have been) grew into a man we had to kill.
And we did have to kill him. Or capture and imprison him. Not, from my point of view, because such actions necessarily represent justice, but rather because from the obvious and practical perspective that he needed to be stopped. I confess I too wanted him punished. I too wanted him to suffer. But I find myself uncomfortable with the notion that my desire for revenge was just.
Perhaps we can’t escape our innate sense that when one of us hurts another, we must balance the scales by hurting them. And because of confirmation bias, we can’t help but explain this desire to ourselves in a way that justifies it (as I wrote in a previous post, The True Cause Of Cruelty, we do the same thing in order to go to war). Certainly protecting ourselves from dangerous people is a necessary expedient. But I keep returning to what the Buddha is said to have answered when asked if it was permissible to kill: “It’s enough to kill the will to kill,” he said, which I interpret to mean that if killing becomes necessary, to feel joy in it is to avoid recognizing the humanity of our fellow human beings—and therefore to diminish the humanity in ourselves.
Killing or imprisoning Bin Laden might have been a necessary evil, but I regret such an evil was necessary. I regret that forces and ideas continue to exist that drive some of us to think that we should, in certain circumstances, deliberately hurt our fellow human beings. I’m not so naive as to imagine these forces or ideas will ever disappear, or that we aren’t right to think in terms of “us” vs. “them” (“them” being anyone who wants to hurt “us”). But to exult in causing harm to others—even if we think they deserve it or that it represents justice, or even if we understand the psychological value of such exultation (it’s arguably cathartic for the national consciousness and for the families and friends of 9/11 victims)—strikes me as one way to take a definitive step away from a truly just and peaceful world. I keep thinking instead of a world in which in our collective response to evil, after the shock and hurt of being victimized and losing loved ones has worn off, and after we’ve taken definitive steps to condemn it, to stand against it, and to make ourselves safe from it, is to take pity on those who commit it, remembering our shared humanity. Not that I’m arguing in any way that we should allow our pity to soften our response. We shouldn’t. But if we reserve our pity only for people we like, I wonder if we’re truly living our very best lives. I suppose few will understand what I mean by this, but the longer I live and the more I learn, the more I think evil is just another word for confused.
Next Week: The Neurology of Near Death Experiences