Troubling Trends in the Perception of Justice

In the super-violent Australian film, ‘The Proposition’, Ray Winstone plays a law-man trying to ‘civilise’ the wild Australian territories in the early days of colonial occupation. Winstone has captured the youngest member of a gang who raped and killed a pregnant woman, but, seeing as he is still a teenager and of diminished mental capacity, plans to use him to draw out the rest of the gang who are responsible for the atrocity. A local politician decides, however, that the furious public should be appeased, and that this young man needs to be punished. He sentences him to 100 lashes with a heavy whip, enough to kill him.

The following day, the outraged public surround the jailhouse to see that this sentence is carried out. Winstone’s character vows to oppose them, promising to kill whoever tries to enforce this unjust punishment. Just as the film promises to dole out some rugged lessons on impartial justice, a strange thing happens. His wife, played by Emily Watson, arrives, and having only recently discovered what the boy has done, with tears in her eyes, she says to her husband, ‘What if it was me? What if he’d done this to me?’ As this thought sinks in, Winstone lowers his weapon stands aside, and the lashing begins. By 40 lashes, the boy is unconscious, public blood-lust is replaced with horror, and the execution of the sentence ends prematurely. Even still, the boy succumbs to his wounds.

Movies are often not the most deeply considered philosophical vehicles, and so this disappointing scene in the midst of a powerful-yet-disgusting film passed me by. Or it would have, had I not come across exactly this sentiment in the mouth of politicians linked to controversy surrounding child rape.

There is much debate currently over whether the death penalty is too strong a sentence for child rapists, and that’s a question for another day. What interests me is the appeal that is often made to ‘imagine that it was your daughter that was raped’, which is what this politician said. The disturbing thing about this request is that it represents exactly the opposite of what ‘blind justice’ aims to achieve. The way in which we decide fair punishment for crimes is by reasoned and impartial judgement (in so far as that is possible for men). We achieve the opposite by attempting to be guided by the powerful emotions of the wronged party. The reason why we have a judiciary in the first place is because the wronged party cannot be relied upon to repay what a crime demands and nothing more. He executes revenge, not justice.

The Biblical maxim of ‘an eye for an eye’ is often misunderstood as providing justification for revenge, and yet it actually was given as a call to lawmakers to return only what a crime deserves. If we run with present trends in the public perception of justice, we will be avenging the loss of a tooth with an eye, or the loss of an eye with a life.

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