The Attorney General Doesn’t Know the Difference Between Justice and Revenge

Apparently Attorney General Bill Barr is a big fan of movies like Death Wish and Dirty Harry. That’s what we learn from an interview he did with Kary Antholis on the Crime Story podcast. He talked about the idea that a sense of justice is hardwired into human beings, who find it satisfying.

Barr elaborated on his theory of justice, recalling the Charles Bronson movie Death Wish and Clint Eastwood’s Dirty Harry, icons of vigilantism in ’70s filmmaking that spawned movie franchises.

The original 1974 exploitation classic Death Wish tells the story of how a do-gooder Manhattan liberal sees the light after his wife is murdered and his daughter is raped. He becomes a one-man vigilante squad, roaming New York City and executing petty thieves.

Death Wish, yeah,” Barr said. “That gives people a sense of satisfaction when they see it.”

Referring to the scene in Dirty Harry when Clint Eastwood’s character tortures a serial killer by shooting him in the leg, Barr says, “I say, now, was that an unjust or morally repellent act? Is the reason that the audience applauds when that happens because the audience is morally bankrupt? Or is there something else going on there?”

All of that is meant to illustrate this point made by Barr.

Americans have tended recently to view [justice] more as a process, as if the criminal justice process is justice, and it isn’t. It’s a process that’s supposed to achieve justice, but very frequently doesn’t.”

You probably don’t need a reminder, but Barr is the man whose job is to oversee the process of criminal justice in this country. Statements like that are only slightly removed from what his boss has said in the past.

“We need quick justice and we need strong justice — much quicker and much stronger than we have right now. Because what we have right now is a joke and it’s a laughingstock. And no wonder so much of this stuff takes place,” the president told reporters.

When Barr and Trump use the word “justice,” what they are actually talking about is revenge. Movies like Dirty Harry and Death Wish exploit the feeling of satisfaction that comes with revenge, while the very process Barr is disparaging was put in place as the alternative to that kind of vigilantism. When it works properly, our criminal justice system is meant to be based on evidence and facts, not feelings. That is the ideal to which we should all be striving.

I am reminded of something George Orwell wrote in an essay titled “Revenge is Sour.” He recounts some things he witnessed in Europe in the immediate aftermath of WWII. They are stories of Jewish people seeking revenge against Nazis who are either in prison or already dead. And then he writes:

But what this scene, and much else that I saw in Germany, brought home to me was that the whole idea of revenge and punishment is a childish daydream. Properly speaking, there is no such thing as revenge. Revenge is an act which you want to commit when you are powerless and because you are powerless: as soon as the sense of impotence is removed, the desire evaporates also.

In a culture imbued with toxic masculinity, the characters played by Clint Eastwood and Charles Bronson are held up as heroes. But the feelings that they exploit emanate from the sense of powerlessness Orwell describes. That is what you will always find at the root of violence and revenge.

William Barr thinks that kind of revenge is hardwired into human beings. That is probably true for those who assume that violence is the only possible response to a feeling of powerlessness. But if you take a moment to review the stories at The Forgiveness Project, you’ll find people who embody the kind of strength and courage that actually qualifies as heroic. Human beings are also hardwired for that kind of response. For example:

On August 25 1993, Amy Biehl, an American Fulbright scholar working in South Africa against apartheid, was beaten and stabbed to death in a black township near Cape Town. In 1998 the four youths convicted of her murder were granted amnesty by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) after serving five years of their sentence – a decision that was supported by Amy’s parents. Easy Nofemela and Ntobeko Peni, two of the convicted men, now work for the Amy Biehl Foundation Trust in Cape Town, a charity which dedicates its work to putting up barriers against violence.

But both revenge and forgiveness are paths that individuals can chose to take. Our collective task is to seek justice. When it comes to the criminal justice system, this is a good summary of its goals.

The primary goals of the criminal justice system are: accurate identification of the person responsible, fair adjudication, retribution, deterrence, rehabilitation and restoration.

Justice also provides protections for those who are innocent until proven guilty. All of that requires a set of agencies and institutions who abide by a defined set of procedural rules and limitations. Several of those rules and limitations are outlined in the Bill of Rights.

That is the process that the attorney general so glibly dismisses in favor of revenge. He is an abomination to the office.

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Nancy LeTourneau

Nancy LeTourneau is a contributing writer for the Washington Monthly. Follow her on Twitter @Smartypants60.