J Is for Justice

Article excerpt

How surprising is it, really, that bullied kids bring guns to school? If you were to pay close attention to what passes for justice in our popular media today, you would pick up a very extreme lesson on what's considered fair.

WE HAD A CLASS BULLY IN EIGHTH GRADE, A big-boned, slack-jawed boy who liked to talk with his hands. Once, during lunch recess, I said something that offended his delicate sensibilities and got a little pummeled into the playground dirt as a reward. Humiliated by this public trouncing, and by having to be rescued by Sister Katherine Marie, I prayed that someday my assailant would "get what was coming to him"--and I didn't mean an "A" in Phys. Ed.

Years later in a college philosophy class I learned that Thomas Aquinas had taught that the virtue of justice was "the determined will to render the other his or her due." Was that, I wondered, what I had been feeling on the playground that day, the noble virtue of justice? Was it justice that made me cry out for my pound of flesh? If so, it felt like a pretty nasty and narrow version of it. What I had been hoping for in the schoolyard wasn't so much justice as vengeance.

From the looks of things, schoolyard bullies have been provoking a good deal of vengeance in the past few years. A study last fall by the National Threat Assessment Center found that in more than two thirds of 37 recent school shootings, youngsters who fired on their classmates and teachers complained that they had been persecuted by other kids. And while bullying is by no means the only cause of school shootings, increasingly educators and legislators are worried about the daily intimidation faced by millions of America's school children and what may be a rising tide of vengeance. The National Association of School Psychologists reports that every day 160,000 youngsters stay home from school to avoid being bullied--and it looks like a tiny-but-growing fraction of these kids are coming to school armed for a little retribution.

PERHAPS KIDS TAKE UP ARMS AGAINST THEIR PERSECUTORS because they see a lot of this narrow version of justice on TV, particularly in the crime and courtroom dramas that make up so much of our prime-time entertainment. In cop shows like Law and Order, NYPD Blue, Nash Bridges, The District, and Walker, Texas Ranger, justice is mostly about finding and punishing all the classroom bullies who have grown up to be murderers, thieves, and drug dealers. The same is true of the real crime shows like American Justice, America's Most Wanted, and Cops, which, week after week, show us brave and burly police officers busting down doors and wrestling felons into the dirt. Even on all those literate, brilliant British detective shows on Mystery, the justice being offered up is retributive justice--justice that makes certain all the bad folks get what's coming to them.

Sometimes, on a show like The Practice, we get a slightly different perspective. Here the cops and prosecutors are the opponents, and the wily defense attorneys and their (occasionally innocent) clients are the heroes or victims. But even on this program the action takes place in a criminal courtroom, reminding us that justice is primarily a matter of identifying and punishing the guilty.

It's only on shows like Family Law and Judging Amy that justice is taken out of the criminal courtroom and thus seems to be about more than guilt or innocence, punishment or retribution. On these programs, which are about a woman's law firm and a female judge, the question is normally not about sentencing, but about discovering "What is in the best interest of the children?" For, like Portia, the female judge in Shakespeare's The Merchant of Venice, these attorneys and jurists have discovered that justice is not always about getting our pound of flesh. Rather, real justice must include mercy, forgiveness, and wisdom. Otherwise, it degenerates into vengeance.

STILL, FOR A REALLY RICH GRASP OF JUSTICE, CHILDREN AND parents would probably do well to turn off the silver screen and pick up a golden book. …