Wednesday, March 08, 2006

Commuting Thoughts 3: Law and Justice, Past, Present and Future

I've been reading Ronald Wright's Stolen Continents: The "New World" Through Indian Eyes, mostly while riding the subway to and from work. It is a very healthy, though often painful, antidote to all the propaganda we've been force fed about the European invasion of the America's and the continuation of those same attitudes and practices to this day. (I'm going to do more research and post stuff on Canada's hushed-up, extremely recent abuse of their indigenous populations, what I've read so far has made me ashamed to be associated with the government of this country and I don't care if that smacks of it treason when you're expected to pledge allegiance to criminals and subtle despots?)


One question that has come up in my reflecting upon Wright's work is how justice can be applied to the problem of past, sometimes long past, atrocities (and not even just atrocities but I'll get to that in a moment). I've been exposed to the rhetoric for years now about how we cannot be held accountable for the sins of our fathers, how we cannot and should not feel guilt over what has happened in the past since we weren't there perpetrating it with our own hands upon entire, healthy and fully functioning civilizations and how those of the past "didn't know any better". But for me these convenient truisms have never rung, well, true. It hasn't rung true not only because, to this day, the two sides of this conflict have continued to either benefit or suffer disproportionately because of those past actions, not only because a little deeper reading reveals that one culture was allowed to so devalue another that it could hate and destroy it, treat it as so inferior that it could make and break "binding" treaties on a whim, justify it as good for the other side, claiming the other side was too "ignorant" to understand this. What bothers me on a more fundamental level is that I still feel there needs to be some way of making "something" accountable for past acts of barbarism, avarice (of absolutely insane proportions), manipulation, distortion, cruelty, slaughter and lies. If it only takes a few years for such crimes to become mere myths, rumours, "whatevers", or worse, justifiable, then what good are the concepts of law and justice to human societies in the first place?

It is about the larger question of responsibility and hinges on our understanding of something like an action/time dynamic. Does a certain quantity of time take away our ability to judge something criminal, unjust or immoral and to attempt retribution? If so, how much time is sufficient and to what infallible, universally comprehensible logic can we turn in order to calculate the quantity and justify our decision? If it is merely based on the longevity of those who carried out the unjust actions, then what are we to do with the ramifications their actions have had upon the descendents of the contemporaneous parties involved? Can justice only be meted out if the perpetrators are amongst the living? If we do decide, rather callously and much too lazily for my tastes, that this is to be the basis of how we know when we can stop seeking justice for crimes, then the winners are always justified no matter how they win as long as enough time passes before anyone successfully brings them to justice in the present. Basically, this is a childish, if you can squeak by and not get caught mentality then you're home-free! If we allow this, how can we expect to turn to history to learn from past mistakes? What is history actually teaching us if we allow this continue to be the normal order of things? Does it not teach that, given enough time, anything is justifiable? This is a very real and slippery slope, one that we have already been sliding down for some time now. For if the past can have its criminality erased then the present and future are also susceptible to being "justified" with a similar logic. The logic might go something like this: If in the past our ancestors did "X" and even though we see that though "X" was bad, we can say they didn't know any better or that it was done based on some vague, unexamined notion of "simple human nature", and we admit that our action today, "Y", is similar to "X" (though perhaps apparently we see differences that to us make it more justifiable), then doing "Y", though it may involve ignoring laws and morality, can be done and cannot really be punished since "X" can has been forgiven and time will let the crimes severity diminish and fade. And what's to stop the "X", "Y's" and even "Z's" of tomorrow from also being necessary and ultimately forgivable such that we start to lose recourse to precedent and the insurmountability of laws and the concept of justice? We begin to start to feel complacent about injustice knowing that history will not judge us too harshly.

The ideas of Law and Justice need to be better understood and comprehended even (or especially) by the common citizen. As social beings it is our duty to uphold and keep honest and incorruptible such institutions that seek to protect us from ourselves and our weaknesses. Laws are supposed to be thought out, created and written down in what we could call our better times, at the moments in the lives as societies when we are best able to reflect, think and critique human actions and decide, well in advance or in response to a recent injustice, a way of delineating what is right and wrong and how those who refuse to obey these delineations will be dealt with. This is meant to prevent situational ethics, to defend against the abuse of power by disallowing in advance the mutability of law and the concept of justice. This is not just an intellectual exercise, this has the most practical fallout in all aspects of our individual lives. Just look at what is occurring in the USA right now. The Patriot Act seeks to bypass or even usurp laws and the Constitution because of "the current situation", one that is spoken of as if it was something completely new and unforeseen, something with which the laws of the past cannot adequately deal. This is, of course, rhetoric said and disguised as thoughtful, insightful discourse. Leaders have used the fear of "threat" for centuries in order to justify their actions even at the expense of the basic needs of the citizenry.

There are of course problems with an overly simple concept of Law and Justice. If taken as too simple it can easily be abused while seemingly being upheld. The creation of the Patriot Act, for example, is just such a case. It could be viewed as a calm and measured response to a recent injustice as if from a "better time", post the actual days on and around September 11th, 2001. But if there was a more general and better understanding of how individual laws have functioned to protect rights and how a law should not be easily overturned without an incredible amount of evidence and overwhelming support to do so. Otherwise, laws are temporary, fleeting and easily changed based on the apparent, real or imagined, needs of any given situation (and we all know how much human beings like to take advantage of 'situations'). The laws that have protected rights must be upheld no matter what the situation. To operate within their boundaries must be the highest priority and worked at exhaustively. This requires real and actual leadership, seeking not simple, band-aid and potentially dangerous "modifications" to current laws, but the most intelligent and measured response in accordance with Law and Justice. We should learn to immediately fear and end any government or body that claims the need for a quick and easy solution that undermines the foundations of society by circumventing current, entrenched laws and rights. Their actions should be instantly considered treasonous.

The problem of how to maintain a state of justice and seek retribution to the descendents of past atrocities is also complicated by the fact that it is difficult to come up with material and monetary quantities that could be seen as adequately compensating or, worse, that would somehow, again, work negatively to erase the severity and abhorrent nature of the past crimes by somehow canceling them with sufficient funds. Also, at what point does one stop seeking to be compensated for ancient decisions? If I find that a great great great uncle had a castle in England and was murdered and had it stolen from him by someone whose descendents happen to still be living in the lap of luxury because of it, while I'm now working menial 9 to 5 jobs (as have all my ancestors since), can we seek retribution from the present day descendents of the murderous thief? I admit, this is a sticky situation but we should not shy away from it for such reasons. Humanity needs to take responsibility for the problems it has created for itself. We need to know that effort is required and not quick fixes. We also need to be able to judge the severity of past crimes and current fallout. For example, in the scenario I gave, have I truly been put in a position that has crushed my soul, blocked my ability to enjoy rights and freedoms? No, not really. I still have my culture intact, I still have strong standing in a community and do not experience the irrational fist of prejudice on a daily basis. In the case of past atrocities and injustices committed against aboriginal populations, these crimes have far more damaging ramifications to this day. Racism, inferior status, continued lying and manipulation, attempts to eradicate entire cultures and civilizations. There is a major difference here, I think.

An appropriate quote quoted in Wright's book to end this:

(this concerns events around 1838 when Cherokees were being forced to be resettled, yet again):

"When removal came, they argued that Treaty of Echota did not apply to them, as they were North Carolina citizens. Their leader, old Yonaguska, or Drowning Bear, was said to be the finest speaker of his time....When Boudinot's Bible came out in Sequoyan script [a form of writing created by the Cherokees after colonial contact], Yonaguska listed to a chapter or two and remarked, 'Well, it seems to be a good book - strange that the white people are not better, after having had it so long'."


Blogger Kathleen Callon said...

Moving. Like most things, there isn't a clear answer as to what is the best course. You said this is going on now. Well, maybe you can help stop it or bring it to awareness, although after that other post, you'll have to warn me so I can get a Leah costume... What do the indigenous people want. That's the best place to start.

The "sins of our fathers" are our sins when we live on the land that was stolen from indigenous peoples. The "sins of our fathers" are our sins when we let them perpetuate.

1:21 p.m.  
Blogger Kathleen Callon said...


1:21 p.m.  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

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4:49 a.m.  

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