Bob and Marty had lived next door to each other for years. They had raised families, talked at the driveway, even borrowed each other’s rakes and shovels occasionally over the years. They weren’t friends, but there was at least casual good will between them.
One day, for no apparent reason, Bob throws a rock through Marty’s living room window. There’s no question. Bob did it. Marty saw it. Fritz across the street saw it, too. Bob was guilty.
So, what does Marty do next? A) Nothing? Hope it doesn’t happen again?
B) Call the police? Press charges? Wait for the case to wind its way through court, hoping that at some point, Bob will be fined, forced to make restitution, and maybe even do community service?
C) Wait for an opportune moment to take not one, but two rocks, and throw them through Bob’s living room window, but also the dining room window, just to make sure he gets the message?
One might well ask the question, “What’s the point?” What does Marty hope to accomplish in holding Bob accountable for his crime? If the answer is to make sure Bob knows how egregious his crime was, then maybe C) is the best. If he wants the whole community to know how angry he was, how upset he was, and what kind of terrible impact the rock through his window had, then option C) might be the best. It’s It fulfills the emotional requirement. It’s makes the perpetrator pay. It fulfills that tit for tat, mathematical formula for crime and punishment.
If Marty were to throw the retributional rocks through Bob’s windows, he might feel an adrenaline rush, some satisfaction that now Bob knows what it feels like; he may even feel a bit of twisted pride that he went one better, breaking not one window, but two. But in the long run, Marty has done nothing positive for anyone. The retribution doesn’t take away the anger, it doesn’t bring back his window; it doesn’t erase the trauma of that original sound of breaking glass. In fact, it may even make things worse because now Marty lives in the fear that Bob may try to do him one better, and God only knows what that might be.
Really, none of the three options recognize the human relationship that is at stake regardless of what Marty chooses to do. Another way to say it is that Bob and Marty will be living next to each other regardless; they will be in community regardless. At some point, if there is to be any peace in either of their lives, they will have to face the breach in the relationship and reconcile. They will have to talk to each other. Making Bob accountable for his actions is only the very first and very minimal step in repairing the breach that a violent act causes between people.
The criminal justice system in the U.S. seems to be aimed overwhelmingly at one aspect of the equation, making criminals pay for their crime. Mostly, the payment is in time; you commit a crime, and we will take years away from your productive life. The worse the crime, the more years we will exact from you. We will make you pay. And if the crime is really bad or violent, then we will make you pay the ultimate price. We will take your life from you. It’s the ultimate expression of Marty throwing those rocks of retribution through Bob’s windows.
But taking years away from people’s lives does nothing to repair the breach. It doesn’t bring back the car that was stolen and turned into parts, it doesn’t restore the trauma that the bank clerk experienced at the holdup, and it doesn’t bring back the murdered victim. The only thing it does is somehow give us the impression that we have done something good and satisfying by making the perpetrator pay for his or her crime.
What I fear is that this obsession with payment — another word for vengeance — is rotting our national soul. We never have to pay any attention to the more important things, like healing breaches, like restoring community, like recognizing the inherent value of human life, even the life of the person who has committed acts of great violence that have led to great loss of life. There is still value in that human life. In our push to make sure we punish criminals, to make sure the punishment fits the crime, to make sure the bad guy pays for his wrongs, we haven’t paid nearly enough attention to what vengeance is doing to us. How it’s making us collectively callous to the value of a human life. And how it lets us off the hook, brushing aside the hard, painful, but ultimately valuable work of reconciliation.
And I think that’s true, even for such egregious crimes as that of Dzhokhar Tsarnaev. He should not get the death penalty. No one should. Regardless of what he has done, he is human, and his life has value.
And there’s a bigger issue, a much more significant issue, an issue that affects all of us regardless of how many degrees we are removed from the Boston Marathon bombing. Our human community is much more valuable than the internal eating away of our soul that happens when vengeance is the only thing on our agenda. Vengeance is not worth what it’s doing to us.
Have you ever heard this story? A prayer was left beside the body of a dead child by a prisoner at the Ravensbruck Concentration Camp. “O, Lord, remember not only the men and women of good will, but also those of ill will. But do not remember all the suffering they have inflicted on us: remember the fruits we have brought, thanks to this suffering — our comradeship, our loyalty, our humility, our courage, our generosity, the greatness of heart which has grown out of all this, and when they come to judgment, let all the fruits which we have borne be their forgiveness.”