Justice, apology, and such

I just finished watching an incredibly difficult documentary. It’s called Awful Normal, and it follows two young women as they gather courage and confront the man who molested them when they were little children. My chest is still tight.

All in all, their effort was a very successful one I think, but throughout it struck me just how differently this whole thing would have played out in a different time, or in a somewhat different society. That doesn’t come to my mind because I’m interested in abstractions about culture or whatever, but because throughout their quest to find closure and rest from something that happened twenty years ago, I often found my instincts conflicting with what the felt like they needed to end their pain.

The thing that struck me most continually was the difference in what they were striving for – psychological closure, and what I wanted to see happen – justice. These are pretty distinct things, though it seems that most people only want the second because it will give them the first, and I think that’s where I sit, and I have a hard time having the first without the second. Not so for these girls. What they needed was just to see him own it, and hear him say he was sorry, and they could move on. I don’t know if it has something to do with my maleness, or some barbaric gene in my DNA, but the whole movie long, it rarely occurred to me that he needed to own up. Rather, I would have brief fantasies of mutilating him in some horrible way, or just killing him.

It makes me think of Benito Mussolini. When it became apparent to the citizens of Italy that he had screwed his whole country over, they tried him, executed him, dragged his naked body through the streets, and left it hanging in a public square until the stench was unbearable. This seems sort of barbaric to most of us, but I wonder if sometimes the gruesome way is the only way out.

That’s probably a tired sort of instinct. Everyone moans that serial killers get to die peaceful deaths in injection chambers, while their victims die in much more terrible ways. It is interesting though that our catharsis about something as terrible as child molestation can come from the monster’s mere admission. It says something about us that the “solution” (though, of course, there’s no such thing) to our pain is so asymmetrical to its cause. Maybe that shows that we’re becoming a more loving, gracious society. I doubt it though. Our motivation for grace and forgiveness is mostly self-centered now. We’re told to forgive so that we can be free – which is, of course, a pretty morally worthless sort of act; like giving food to the homeless just to earn frequent-flyer miles.

I think, rather, this drastic asymmetry signals that we’re becoming a society with a pervasive lack of interest in justice. The fact that we can get over child molestation to any serious degree by just hearing the culprit confess carries some immediate psychological benefits for the victims, but it completely neglects the need for justice to be served, and if a society is comprised of such individuals it seems like it will have the effect of making serious wrong-doing seem more and more like the trivial trespasses that children make, which somehow are miraculously dissolved by apology. That, to me, sounds like a pretty dangerous mindset for a society to adopt.

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