Freedom and Order: Two Perspectives on American Justice


The purpose of the law is to mitigate against self-interest. If it were up to individuals, the law would always work in their favor. The dice would be loaded. Fate would twist in their direction, and the coin would invariably land on the side picked. The odds would be as irrelevant as yesterday’s sports section. If it were up to individuals, every police officer would let us go without a speeding ticket, and every judge would dismiss our case without looking at the evidence.

But, is this actually the justice system that rational citizens want? Are these the expectations that we want to hold our police officers and judges accountable to? Do we really want a world where each case is decided based on the whims of individuals, rather than the ideal objectivity of the law?

What makes a single person so special? Why do they deserve to get off when their neighbor is caught for the same crime? Why should a police officer charge one person with speeding, and the next person with a seat belt violation? Why does one person get pulled over, and another person get a courteous wave? Why does one boy get shot for waving a toy gun, and another boy get a thumbs up?

Don’t we want our police officers to treat every single person the same way? Don’t we want our judges to sentence every single person the same way? Don’t we want our congresspersons to vote with the interests of society at large in mind? Don’t we want our teachers to raise our youth to believe that every mind is given the same attention? Don’t we want our doctors to treat every person with the same level of urgent care? Isn’t this what we call blind justice? Isn’t this American Justice?

Perhaps. But not everyone sees justice this way. The urge to expect that each individual will be viewed in the eyes of the law as a unique personality is quite powerful. There is a reason that this mindset has so much support: after all, it is founded on sacred values such as freedom, creativity, flexibility, open mindedness, and dynamic love (which is always uncontrolled and unpredictable). This form of justice is never caught in semantic traps. It is never dragged down by the chains of a system. It does not need to respond in a prescribed way. Since all people are unique, spontaneous, and mysterious beings, the law should, ideally speaking, view single incidents as single incidents; and every single person should be judged differently, based on the current state of their singular affairs.

This form of justice makes a difference when you are the one being charged with a crime or forced up against the wall of systemic exploitation. You want the cop to see you and not your skin color or gender. You want to be accounted for as a real person, and not a symbol. You want to be a name with a story, and not a stereotypical representative of a group.

In America today, these two ideas about justice are always contesting. They jostle back and forth like two gladiators pitted in a ring. Some days, the side of personalized-restorative based justice wins out. On other days, the side of societal-retributive based justice wins out. There is no easy compromise between the two, and it is never very clear which side is more in harmony with the needs of our time.

Take, for instance, genocidal slavery in the Americas. The criminal justice system in today’s United States will only serve and protect African Americans if it can abide by universal moral guidelines which pertain to every citizen in equal measure. (Precisely what was absent in the 18th and 19th centuries.) Discrimination will never ease the pain and suffering of more discrimination. Hate will never kill hate. Only love can do that.

Echoing the good doctor’s words, we also need to accept that every situation in life is unique. There is not a single person, or single event, that is not shaped and influenced by an infinite number of variables-all of which make punishing someone an arbitrary charade that tarnishes the reputation of justice in the minds and hearts of those who rely on it most.

In the speech of speeches, MLK said it better than any American who has ever dared to think and act as a morally free individual guided by a determined social conscience:

“I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character.”


Photo by George Cassidy Payne



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