Earlier this week, James Degorski, the second of two men convicted in the 1993 Brown's Chicken massacre, was spared the death penalty by a Chicago jury charged with deciding his fate. As Eric Zorn has observed, if we're going to have a death penalty, this would be the case that cries out for it. But rather than debate the merits of the death penalty or the relative merits of the death penalty in the Brown's case, I would like to address another matter that nags at me when these cases are discussed.
Inevitably, someone chimes in to criticize bleeding hearts for thinking that they have the right to offer mercy and forgiveness to the killers. The argument goes something like this: Not your loss; not yours to forgive. And, besides, mercy and forgiveness are cheap when you're dispensing them at a distance, insulated from personal victimhood.
I agree with this sentiment, but I'm not so sure that the argument always arises from a deep sense of ethical integrity or from sensitivity to the plight of victims, as much as it is used to provide moral cover to those who crave vengeance from a distance. I find this usurpation of vengeance just as troubling as the usurpation of forgiveness.
My take: if it isn't your loss, you don't get to forgive; but you aren't entitled to satisfaction of your displaced cravings for vengeance either. Sometimes victims want other people to butt out and let the law try to do approximately the right thing, which will never really be justice or personal restoration anyway. The state can attempt some simulation of justice, but justice can't always be had. Certainly, wanting to 'throw the switch' oneself, as I've heard several people say in the Brown's chicken case, is not about justice. The person who feels that way ought to pursue a more serious encounter with the darkness of their own psyche and leave the serious problem of justice to those who aren't salivating over the chance to kill.
When the state acts against a criminal, it should first act to protect society as a whole. Second, it should act to ensure justice as much as possible without becoming as primitive as the worst among us. If someone tortures and kills children, we don't torture the killer and we certainly don't torture and kill the family members of the killer to make the killer feel what his victims' families felt. While the state should seek something approximating justice, it should do so without falling into a moral abyss. We are entitled to collective protection and victims should be restored as much as possible, but without the state becoming a monster that finds scapegoats--even guilty scapegoats-- that legitimize the displaced expression of our worst collective impulses.
But all of that is a digression from my central point, which is this: if you insist that forgiveness belongs only to the victimized, don't assume that you are acting on behalf of the victim when you get all jacked up for vengeance. You're not doing that for the victim. You're doing that for yourself. We have a collective responsibility for justice, which is not the same thing as vengeance. For those inclined to seek religious justification for vengeance, remember that an eye for an eye is not merely an entitlement to exact payment; it also represents a limitation on payment owed, delegitimizing our often bottomless, disproportionate cravings for vengeance.