STRONG LANGUAGE WARNING: This is fiction, one of the characters swears a lot. If that’s a problem, don’t read it.
(A road. The night is drawing up her skirts and the moon is peering out from between her thighs. At least that’s how Juvenal is thinking about it as he hugs the curves with his thread-bare tires. His brothers, Germanicus and Catullus, are seated respectively in the back and the passenger seats of the pick-up. Juvenal hasn’t yet told them where they are going.)
JUVENAL. So I got a question for you guys.
CATULLUS and GERMANICUS. Yes?
CATULLUS. I hate to be pedantic, but “murder” is not a question.
JUVENAL. Is it ever morally justifiable?
GERMANICUS. I’m pretty sure the strict definition of “murder” is unjustifiable homicide.
JUVENAL. Fine, if you’re gonna get all tautological on my ass, is homicide ever justifiable.
GERMANICUS. Oh. Obviously.
CATULLUS. I don’t think that’s obvious at all.
GERMANICUS. What if someone attacks you?
CATULLUS. In the all-too-likely event that one day someone attacks me, I think it improbable that they will be interested in effecting my death. More likely they’ll just want to knock me out and steal my shoes. In which case homicide seems rather an overreaction.
GERMANICUS. Okay, what if a knife-wielding homicidal maniac has just stabbed me to death, and then he goes after you. Can Juvenal kill him?
CATULLUS. (looks at Juvenal) Please don’t. I’ll have nightmares about it forever, whereas if I get down on my knees and look sweet and whisper “I forgive you” to my murderer with my dying breath I’ll get a free ticket to salvation. Much easier than repenting, in my opinion.
GERMANICUS. You’re being deliberately difficult. Take yourself out of the situation. Imagine it with someone else.
CATULLUS. If it’s necessary to use force to defend someone, you have a moral obligation to use as little as you must. What’s wrong with a shot to leg? If he accidentally kills the man, well, that’s excusable because there’s no intent.
GERMANICUS. You’d better hope you never end up in a horror movie. You’d leave the serial killer clutching at his wounded leg and then he’d come up behind you and garrotte you with a coat-hanger.
CATULLUS. . .and I would forgive him with my dying breath.
JUVENAL. Cute. But stupid. Nobody actually believes that you can’t shoot someone who’s about to rape your sister. And nobody who has ever been in a situation like that believes that you’re going to stop and engage in moral deliberation before pumping him full of lead. There’s adrenaline, the clock is ticking, she’s screaming, and you’re reacting on instinct. And your instinct is to pull the trigger, and keep pulling it until the fucker stops twitching. Anyway I’m not interested in arguing about that. I’m interested in premeditated revenge.
GERMANICUS. Uh. .okay. .Can we get a better fix on the nature of the thought experiment?
JUVENAL. Sure. Orestes. Was Athena right to pardon him? Or should he have been served up to the Furies in a white-wine sauce?
CATULLUS. Absolutely not! Red. A Merlot, I think.
GERMANICUS. Orestes did the will of Apollo. You can’t argue with the gods.
JUVENAL. Yeah, okay dude, but here’s the thing: how do you tell whether it’s “the will of the gods,” or just the crazy talkin? Y’know, epistemology has become a little more sophisticated since Aeschylus. We now realize that sometimes when you hear voices in your head saying “Kill the bitch, kill the bitch. .” it’s not necessarily old Manticus whispering in your ear.
GERMANICUS. Good point. I guess that the difference would hinge on whether or not the proposed course of action was in accord with right reason.
CATULLUS. Which in the case of Orestes it clearly was not. I mean. .I do think that what he did was utterly excusable. You could easily get him off on a plea of insanity. The man was hounded by horrific hallucinations and in the thrall of maddened grief. But justification. .that’s a different thing entirely.
GERMANICUS. Okay. So your position is that something which is unjustifiable can be excusable?
CATULLUS. Clearly. To say that something is justifiable is to say that it was right. To say that it is excusable is merely to say that we would all have done the same.
JUVENAL. Yeah. I’m not interested in “excusable.” I want to know if vengeance can be just.
CATULLUS. No. It can’t. Revenge is a perpetuation of violence which solves nothing.
JUVENAL. So if I kill someone, I shouldn’t have to pay?
CATULLUS. Pay whom? The victim has no interest in the matter. An avenger acts out of their own grief. Their own desire for satisfaction. The victim is beyond all that.
JUVENAL. What if they’re not? Look, suppose, just for the sake of argument, that the Furies are hugging my ass and they’re insistent about this vengeance thing. Suppose that jail is a cake-walk compared to what they’ve threatened to do to me. Suppose that restless spirits stalk the earth and that the very stones cry out on behalf of the slain. I mean, obviously assume that I’m being overdramatic for effect. But suppose.
CATULLUS. Juvenal, for god’s sake, you haven’t murdered someone. .
JUVENAL. I swear by all the gods, and by the demiurge, and by all the little half-breed bastard gods, that I have not murdered anyone.
GERMANICUS. Good. And you’re not going to either. Right?
JUVENAL. You’ve changed your tune pretty fast, Mr. “Yeah, Obviously.”
GERMANICUS. We were talking theoretically then.Probably we’re still talking theoretically now, but there’s a small risk that you’re serious.
JUVENAL. I’m sorry. I thought you believed that theory was serious.
CATULLUS. Juvenal, who precisely are you thinking of killing?
JUVENAL. I’m not necessarily thinking of killing anyone. Maybe I’m just making a point. The point being that I don’t want to hear thought-wank. I want the truth.
GERMANICUS. Okay. Well the truth is that retributive justice is permissible, but only when you have a socially sanctioned means of determining whether or not it is actually just. Otherwise you just end up with lynch-mobs.
CATULLUS. And how is a so-called “justice system” different? A posse may well include twelve of a man’s peers, and a jury may turn into a bloodthirsty mob. I’m sure you’re aware, for example, that a black man is much more likely to face capital punishment than a white man charged with the same crime?
GERMANICUS. So black people should be tried by a jury of other black people, or something equally sensible. Abusus non tollit usum.
CATULLUS. Abusus debet tollere usum if the abuse if widespread and endemic. What if the accused is a blackhomeless transwoman with paranoid schizophrenia. Are you going to convene a jury of twelve black, trans, homeless schizophrenics to give her a fair trial?
JUVENAL. Why should a fair trial depend on the jury being sympathetic to the accused? Say some yahoo beats a gay kid to death in the sincere belief that he is saving America from the fate of Sodom. Should he have the right to trial by a jury of Westboro Baptists?
CATULLUS. If this “yahoo” as you call him believes that gay people are a threat to civilization it’s unlikely he arrived at that belief of his own accord. Real responsibility lies with the people who taught him tohate, and the people who taught them to hate. Killing him achieves nothing. It just allows society to harmlessly expiate its guilt by slaughtering a scapegoat.JUVENAL. How is that less true of other forms of punishment?
CATULLUS. Because other forms of punishment allow the guilty to repent, and the victim to forgive. The wrong-doer is offered an experience of compassion, and the victim is ennobled by being granted the opportunity to radically repudiate the logic of hate.
JUVENAL. Repentance and forgiveness are mainstays of Medieval gallows drama. And prison is not an experience of compassion. Think about it: if I told you that a serial killer was going to hang you by the neck would you be more scared or less scared than if I told you that a group of indifferent psychos were going to lock you up for twenty-five years in a ten by six foot box? There’s a reason why lifers are routinely deprived of shoelaces.
GERMANICUS. Fear and depression are not objective measures. Statistically speaking, a life sentence is actually only a third of your life. Most people would still have time when they got out. Besides, it’s not like you can’t do things while you’re locked up. In prison you have books. You have your reason, and your free will, and your thoughts, your memories.
CATULLUS. No. Juvenal has a point. Incarceration as it’s actually practiced is some weird combination of our worst and darkest impulses to torture the guilty for their sins and our noblest desires to see people redeemed. But prison could be turned into an arena of compassion if it included beauty, and reasonable comforts, and opportunities for love.
JUVENAL. Seriously? Cat, if prison were basically a federally funded gravy train I’d be there right now. I’d go and burn down a Walmart or shoot an abortionist or some other public-spirited crime, then sit there eating ice- cream and cozying up to my little maximum security fire-place while Joe tax-payer footed the bill. It’d sure be easier than living out of the back of my pick-up.
CATULLUS. You would not. You’d go crazy within a week.
JUVENAL. Possibly true. So we’re back to my original point, which is that capital punishment is not only more just, in terms of the victim, it’s also more humane for the accused.
GERMANICUS. Don’t be ridiculous. No one believes in capital punishment for humanitarian reasons. I believe in capital punishment because it’s a reasonable way for society to deal with people who have consciously, willingly, with malice aforethought, taken it upon themselves to deprive another human being of life. Itmakes sense because it is proportionate and because it is fair. If you kill someone, your life is forfeit. Quid pro quo.
JUVENAL. So what about Orestes? He’s way guilty. Conscious. Willing. Premeditated. He openly admits it. But you yourself said that he was doing the will of the gods.
GERMANICUS. Yeah. . well, regicide is a special case. Orestes had to act independently; there was no way that he could put Aegisthus and Clytemnestra on trial.
JUVENAL. Okay, so if someone had proof positive that OJ had murdered whats-her-name, they would be justified in stabbing him in his sleep, yeah? I mean, the justice system having failed.
GERMANICUS. At some point we have to accept that our attempts at justice are poor approximations and let the gods make up the difference.
CATULLUS. Poor approximations which consistently serve the interests of wealth and power. It’s exactly the same as the old Roman system where there were different standards for the honestiores and the humiliores. The only difference is that the Romans were honest about it.
GERMANICUS. Power grants privilege. That’s inevitable. But it doesn’t mean we can do away with all semblance of justice. The visible punishment of evil performs an incredibly important social function. Yeah, it would suck to be punished unjustly, but if the persecuted innocent dispassionately considers his situation he realizes that human justice is incapable of perfection, and that his suffering is really a necessary contribution to the social order.
CATULLUS. That way atrocities lie!
GERMANICUS. No, because I’m not justifying the misuse of judicial power. The state has an absolute moral obligation to make the laws as just as possible, and an obligation to make every reasonable attempt to apply them justly. All I’m saying is that loosing mere anarchy upon the world in order to avoid the inevitable inequalities that consistently afflict political systems is not a solution.
CATULLUS. So you just shrug your shoulders at human misery and tell the downtrodden that they have a moral obligation to take it like Socrates?
GERMANICUS. No, I’m saying that Socrates, and Solzhenitsyn, and Oscar Wilde and countless other men who have been punished unjustly deserve to be honoured for the contribution their suffering made to society. Also that it happens to be true that those three men, different as they were, all found ways of deriving meaning from persecution.
JUVENAL. I’ll be sure to keep this in mind if I ever get thrown in the can. I’ll meditate on it deeply then make a Germanicus voodoo doll out of my broccoli and stab it repeatedly with my plastic fork. But don’t worry – when your spleen suddenly explodes your suffering will serve an important social function.
GERMANICUS. Okay, Juvenal. You said the murdered have a right to justice. How do you see that happening without taking the risk that an innocent person might be punished by mistake?
JUVENAL. I can’t. But consider this: a judge and jury sentence a guy to death, and then go home for dinner. But what if a private citizen undertakes vengeance instead? Don’t give me that look. Think about it. Capital punishment, as an exercise of the state is just an invitation to gas the Jews and burn the Queers. Why? Because it costs the executioner nothing. But if someone poked out your eye, and you were reasonably sure that you would lose the other eye if you took revenge. .it’d give you pause. Yeah?
CATULLUS. It’d give me pause because pretty much any bastard who wanted to could pin me down and gouge my eyes out with an ice-cream scoop. It would not give a moment’s pause to someone who had the strength to slay heaps upon heaps with the jawbone of an ass. In practice, an eye for an eye means ‘might is right’.
JUVENAL. Which is why you need the state. A superior force that can pretty much flatten any motherfucker that comes up against it is a precondition for justice. I think the state has to have the capacity to lock a man up for life. But the execution of murderers should be reserved to private individuals. ‘Cause otherwise, justice is raped. (Juvenal drifts off into Metallica-land under his breath for a few bars.)
GERMANICUS. This is one of your stupid arguments. The ones that you make to see if you can get away with convincing other people of batshit craziness that even you don’t believe.
JUVENAL. I promise it is not. Please, just try to take me seriously. Say that I witnessed a murder. Say that I have pretty much certain knowledge of who is responsible. Let’s say that the murder was totally unconscionable and that the victim was a child. There’s no question of justification. Now I have to decide. Do I kill the person responsible or let them off the hook? And I have to make that decision in the full knowledge that if I take their life I’m liable to spend the rest of my life in a dungeon talking to Brother Roach.
[End of Part I]
Excerpted from Eros & Thanatos
Picture credit: Melinda Selmys