Imagine a world with two paths to truth.
In the first world, your daughter was brutally killed. You are devastated. Like all humans, you want revenge, you want justice. Emotion boils as your heart breaks. You start asking questions in your neighborhood. Neighbors start asking questions of neighbors. Wives doubt their husbands. Families turn a wary eye towards their own. You learn some evidence here and there, from so-and-so about such-and-such. You trace this path towards your daughter’s killer. You have enough proof, enough doubt, enough truth to seek your revenge. You have justified your right to kill your daughter’s killer.
In the second world, your daughter was killed. The police, whom you doubt, whom you are supposed to doubt, ask their own questions of the neighbors and the neighborhood. They pursue their path to truth through the police method (our mythological and techno-cultural equivalent of the scientific method). They find physical evidence and testimonial traces. They find your daughter’s killer. Evidence builds a case. A trial is held and the guilty are punished. Revenge has been reached through the police and legal path to truth, a truth that punishes and sometimes kills. Your daughter’s killer after much search, verification and trial punished, is put to death. The justice system, to the best of its ability, has killed the right person
In both worlds, vengeful paths led to truth.
In the first world, you pursued a path to truth that you thought lead to your daughter’s killer. You killed with good intentions and, in fact, with enough proof and admission to justify your revenge. You killed, but you killed the wrong person. Your pathway had led you wrongly.
In the second world, the police pursued truth through their methods. Justice followed from evidence; evidence and testimony turned doubts and suspicions into proof, into truth. This police truth was matched through a process assuring judiciary truth. These truths find the guilty and punished accordingly. These are acts meant to justify the state’s right to punish, to seek justice, to rectify our need for revenge through the intermediary of punitive justice. Thou shalt not punish the innocent, only the guilty. They shall punish for you. Legal trial proves the police-version of a still vengeful truth, a truth that kills, whether literally, socially or psychologically. But even this complex network toward truth can make mistakes. Its punishment can be mistaken. It could, in theory and in fact, ill the wrong person.
These are truths that kill, and mistakes make the justice unjustified; the revenge wrongly placed; this death, the wrong death.
In the second world, the world of public justice, procedures are used to determine justice-seeking punitive truth. The execution of the guilty is justified, is truthful; this is the truly truthful.
In this first world, a place of personal justice and revenge, emotion stirs doubts seeking truth; these emotional intuitions are verified through some truth finding. If this private method manages to find the same truth as that of the public justice, an eye-for-an-eye truth, killing the killer is justified, is acceptable, is, in fact, equally truthful, even though it has abandoned the public path to truth. But this personal, vengeful path can never be truly truthful with the community, a community.
Both could kill the wrong person. When the justice system kills or punishes the wrong person, time lost is compensated monetarily to the unintentional victim, and the justice system tries to refine its truth-finding tools and its truth-verifying ways. We don’t shut down the entire police and judiciary system for a single mistake. Even quite a few mistakes don’t justify that the system should be killed off, should be punished, should be removed. It should be corrected, then move on. The mistake should be reconciled, not condemned.
But what if you, though justified by rage and partial truth, killed the wrong person? How should you be punished? Should you be punished?
Even if you personally killed the wrong person for the wrong reasons, you still killed with the right intentions, with a certain sense of truth and truth-seeking, though misinformed. The consequences are deadly ones with no going back, no un-doing. The murder of the wrong killer for revenge-seeking, justice-seeking, truth-seeking reasons has not changed the consequences of an unjustified death, a death that needs to be compensated for through justice or through reconciliation.
In seeking truth, you killed mistakenly, crazily. You punished by your own right, not by that of the entire public, procedural community. Should you be punished or forgiven? Should you be put away in prison or reconciled with the community?
Your desire to seek what we all need, justice, revenge, went wrongly. In retrospect, you are glad the right killer was found; you are stirred by your fatal mistake. You are guilty in a consequential way but it wasn’t intentional—err it was intentional to kill, a knowing act, but it was unintentional to kill the wrong man. You know you are forbidden to kill your own by law, by “God,” by normal circumstances. But for humans like all complex, social animals, wrongful, unjust action requires justice, quid pro quo, retribution. But paths, though justified in emotion and partial, misled, misleading truth, can diverge accidentally. You, like the entire judiciary system can kill the wrong person, even though both were seeking truth. You are guilty because your path to truth was the wrong path, lead to the wrong truth. But like the police and entire legal and punitive system, we don’t condemn (or at least not so severely) that which was an honest mistake; we must reconcile, we must forgive, even in the deadliest of mistakes.
We are all seeking a path to truth. But in truth that kills there is really only one say as to what is truly true, that is the collective voice and public method of verified and proven justice. You reached truth, the wrong truth that kills, because you left the community and the public, legal authority for your personal pursuit. The only revengeful truth that should be is that of the public, justice system. But this is only a system meant to filter revenge through punishment, not forgiveness, and, as such, even this mistaken act of honest emotion and partial truth must be punished. You must be put away.
But is this the limit of all thoughts on justice? Does not justice equate simply to revenge, to some form of retribution and compensation? Revenge and justice are ways of paying back for what was lost. But certain things can never be paid back; their loss is eternal. Vengeful justice is not the only political and ethical notion at our disposal in such a societal situation. It is at this very limit of vengeful truth that we come upon the need or necessity for forgiveness and communal reconciliation. Justice means revenge, exclusion, and cutting off. Forgiveness means admitting mistake, letting go, reconciling back together and moving on collectively.
This is a paradox point to our social logic. Justice is about remembering and retribution. Forgiveness is about a kind of forgetting and a way of creating anew as sharing partners and joined story-tellers. Society must seek both, paradoxically.
This is a difficult challenge in a world where we often kill the wrong person for the wrong reasons and yet must seek justice as well as reconciliation as we move onward ethically and politically, justifiably and lovingly.