I’ve been binge watching “courtroom dramas” recently and just finished A Cry in the Dark. It’s the one about the real trial of Lindy Chamberlain who was accused of murdering her baby, when it had been carried off by a dingo (wild dog). I can’t help but be reminded of the “right to life-ers” who want to charge women who’ve had miscarriages with murder. Way to make a traumatic event worse! This was a case of “trial by media”, and I avoided paying any attention to the trial and the movie until now. As presented in the movie, there was a lot of forensic evidence that just went over the heads of the jury, so they decided she was guilty based on her unemotional behavior.
I also remember my friend Paul’s trial, where he was sent to prison because he’d accompanied a friend (some friend!) to an apartment where the man had beat his wife in one room, so badly that she later died, while Paul changed and fed the baby in another room. Later, the man turned states witness, but the furor was so great (not only did the mother die, but so did the baby because no one came back to help either of them), that the prosecution said “somebody must pay!”. Since they couldn’t try the murderer, or the police, who’d apparently been watching the apartment but left it alone hoping the father would come back to help the baby, all the weight of the law- and public opinion- fell on Paul. I’ll give you (and so did he) that condoning that a man could be allowed to beat a woman that badly because he thought she was unfaithful is not acceptable. But I find it worse that the public has such a taste for vengeance.
In so many of these trials I’ve watched, jurors, the public, and others who have nothing to do with the case, jump in and demand that “payment” must be made for the victims. What payment could give a victim back his or her life? How will making someone else suffer do anything to improve the situation? Yet so many people seem to feel that punishment is a good thing. No one has ever been able to explain this to me adequately. It has been proven that the severity of punishment doesn’t reduce acts (although the certainty of it does). No, it seems to be nothing more than feeding the appetite of the public for revenge.
There seems to be a feeling that if someone suffers, someone else should be made to suffer, and that this somehow makes things better. How? I’m good with consequences- if you do this, then you must try to make the situation better, even if this is a hardship for you. But just passing out punishment? No. I can understand someone who’s hurt wanting the person who’s done it to understand how much it hurts- perhaps if they realize the extent of the pain they’ve caused, they’d avoid doing it again. But this “punishment” goes beyond that. I don’t understand why they want it, I see no benefit to anyone. I understand that some victims see punishment as recognition of the suffering they’ve endured, and think that this is giving them “justice”.
I see this as wounding our society, and worse, unnecessarily. We are taking on the role of the party intentionally hurting individuals, and that cannot be a good thing for our group soul. The self righteousness of the “court system” may bother me because that is often one of my failings. I’m all for using the system to find out who is going to have to offer recompense, because often it is a burden to someone who didn’t intend, but did cause harm- for example a drunk driver does not INTEND to kill or maim others on the road. Still, in as much as possible, he must take responsibility for the results of his choices. In the Chamberlain case, many people didn’t want dingos as a group to suffer for the (alleged) action of one, much as we shouldn’t judge all people in leather jackets or hoodies by the behavior of one jerk who happens to have been wearing that style when he did something awful. Can we not come to a place where we don’t judge a whole group by one of the members, and where we don’t see hurting others as a way of helping a victim?
I cannot help but feel that we do our society more damage by supporting vengeance than we help. I’m not sure how we can fix it. “An eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth” was meant to counter acceleration of return, to restrain, not sanction vengeance. We should find better ways to respond. Frankly, I would like to think that the juries I’ve been watching in these movies are designed for dramatic effect, but I fear they are typical. They see someone hurting, and want to hurt someone back, even if it’s not the specific criminal. In In Cold Blood, the courts played with the sentencing to make it possible to keep the death penalty an option. In The Thin Blue Line, the cops went after an innocent adult because the criminal was a minor, and not eligible for the death penalty. Our thirst for vengeance warps our desire for justice. In 12 Angry Men, they showed how each of the jurors brought his own prejudices, as well as insights to the jury room. This is, I expect, what drama is for- from the ancient Greek religio-theatre to modern movies. How much insight into ourselves do we need before we desire to change?
How do we reduce the thirst for retribution in ourselves and our society? Perhaps, like sexism, the first step is to recognize it.