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The Significance of “Public” in the Public Justice System

The alternative to public justice is private justice. Historically, private justice has included interminable feuds. A member of a family is killed or injured, the affected family retaliates by killing or injuring either the imagined assailant or a member of his family. This assailant’s family then retaliates, injuring or killing members of the first family ad infinitum. Some feuds have been known to last centuries.

Another method involves vigilantism. An angry mob becomes judge, jury, and executioner. There is no trial or careful determination of guilt and the remedies open to the mob of vigilantes are limited to the noose or possibly a severe beating if the victim gets lucky.  The vigilante mob is vulnerable to the speeches and sophisms of mellifluous scoundrels. There are no rules of evidence, so it is all too easy for someone’s enemies to conspire against him. Mere unsubstantiated rumor and baseless assertion provides sufficient pretext to attack. If it concerns you that innocent people are sometimes falsely convicted in the public justice system, you should be more concerned about the consequences of mob rule.

Police departments have background checks to verify that candidates have no criminal history, are respected and trusted by their neighbors, and are generally of good character. No system is perfect. Some people of bad character get through, and some officers will be corrupted by the job, become cynical, and take the law into their own hands if supervision is lax. Police officers also receive training in how to defuse tense situations with verbal “judo,” how to use weapons, and how to arrest someone while recognizing civil rights. Members of vigilante mobs have no background checks and no training. Almost invariably as members of society, citizens will be better off with trained and carefully selected police officers than with self-appointed “equalizers” and vigilantes, who may be sadists, have no supervision, no departmental policies to follow, and no job-related penalties and sanctions. Vigilantes are anonymous, police officers are not and can be disciplined if they break laws or overextend their powers.

The alternative to public law enforcement is private protection in the form of bodyguards, private guards of property, and gun ownership. Private protection is expensive and is thus reserved for the rich. Police protect the most vulnerable members of society the most because they cannot hire their own protection, and they live in the most crime-wracked neighborhoods, though it is an unhappy fact of life that rich well-connected people can at times intimidate the police and avoid arrest with plausible threats to sue or otherwise make trouble. If a police officer arrests the mayor’s son, he better be sure of his grounds for arrest.

Public justice depersonalizes arrest, prosecution, and determination of guilt. If a judge, for instance, knows the defendant, is related to the defendant, or has any other such connection, he is supposed to recuse himself from the case. By removing personal bias and conflicts from the justice system as much as possible, public justice means that feuds do not begin. By following due process and rules of evidence it lessens the chance of feelings taking over and the mob simply seeking retribution and increases the likelihood of rightful conviction. This does not mean that feelings never intervene but that everything has been done to minimize mob rule and personal antagonisms. When the police come to arrest you, the jailer locks you up, and the judge or jury determines guilt it is as close as we can come to it being “nothing personal.” Objectivity is never perfect, but it is better than the victim’s best buddies turning up on your doorstep ready to string you up, when no determination of your guilt has even been found. With public justice and officers of the law it makes no particular even emotional sense to take revenge on the arresting officers or the judge. Nonetheless, threats are sometimes made in order to intimidate any judge or prosecutor. When Rudolph Giuliani was a prosecutor, a mob boss he was prosecuting threatened to have him killed. On the TV show about fictional UK cops, Scott and Bailey, one of the detectives was threatened by someone with ties to the criminal underworld. Her response? “My gang is bigger than his gang.” It was a joke, but that is an element of public justice. Not only is singling out any one member of the public justice system as being to blame for your prosecution or conviction somewhat nonsensical, since getting rid of one prosecutor or judge will simply mean another taking his place, and neither of them are taking revenge on you, but in taking on the public justice system the defendant is up against the entire state.

One of the biggest drawbacks of private justice is that there is no practical end to the cycle of revenge. Your family’s “honor” must be defended and slights avenged. Each attempt to punish malfeasance just counts as a new wrong to be rectified. The only way to end the cycle in that case is for the mob that encompasses both sides to choose a single scapegoat victim to blame for everything and then to murder him. However, there is nothing just about such a solution, and everyone would have something to fear, since it could be anyone of us.

Richard Cocks

Richard Cocks is an Associate Editor of VoegelinView and has been a faculty member of the Philosophy Department at SUNY Oswego since 2001. Dr. Cocks is an editor and regular contributor at the Orthosphere and has been published at The Brussels Journal, The Sydney Traditionalist Forum, People of Shambhala, The James G. Martin Center for Academic Renewal and the University Bookman.

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