Punishment Is Not Justice

Photo by Oxana Melis on Unsplash

A few days ago, someone on Twitter posted a question. They asked if putting Donald Trump in prison would help begin the healing process for our country. I don’t know why, but I decided to answer the question and said, “No. It will just fire up his base.” (Don’t worry, I’ve learned my lesson. I did not engage at all beyond that.) As you can probably imagine, my answer got a couple of likes, but more negative comments. And those negative comments got a great many likes.

The gist of the negative comments was that justice is important and we must see it through. There were some comments about how imprisoning those behind the January 6th riot is the only way to stop it from happening again. Things like that. I didn’t engage with any of the commentors there, but I think their views are fairly pervasive even though they are wrong. So, I wanted to give a quick explanation of why they are wrong. I probably won’t get to it in this post, but I also want to explore how we should actually move forward.

Let’s start with basic human psychology. Everyone knows this with toddlers, but it is every bit as true for adults. Consequences don’t affect behavior if they are delayed. If you catch your kid writing on the wall, you can’t wait a week to discipline them. The punishment, at that point, will not have any connection with the bad behavior. This is why people engage in all kinds of behaviors that are bad for them, from smoking to eating poorly. If you got the lung cancer within five minutes of smoking, no one would smoke. We discount the consequences the more distant they are.

The first part of my position comes down to the fact that the Democrats missed their chance. Trump has been doing deeply immoral and illegal things for at least forty years now, but we’ll just look at his recent political career. There was evidence that he had colluded with foreign governments during his campaign, but nothing was done to stop him from assuming power. Al Gore fought harder over hanging chads than Clinton over foreign interference in an American election. Once in power, he broke the law on a daily basis. The Democrats didn’t even try to punish him for two whole years. Then, they did hold impeachment hearings, but only for abuse of power and obstruction of congress, which are vague charges that ignore most of the things that he did wrong. When the Senate acquitted, they didn’t try again until after he left office for the January 6th riot. They had two weeks between when the riot happened and Trump’s term ended, but they couldn’t get it together to start the trial until after Trump was out anyway. We’re now more than a year since Trump left office. That’s way too much time for anyone to feel any connection between any consequences and Trump’s crimes. Even Twitter waited until it didn’t matter anymore to enforce their own rules. If the Democrats had acted decisively while the crimes were taking place, that would have been great. It’s too late now.

The second part of my position is that prosecuting Trump is backwards looking. He’s out. He holds no real power. I wish everyone would just stop talking about him. If we did that, what little power he still has would disappear. An arrest and trial would just keep him in the public eye, continuing the status quo. (I suspect the mainstream media wants this. It makes them a lot of money.) We need to start looking forward, not rehashing the last six years.

Finally, we get to my third, and main, point. Someone reading this is bound to have thought something along the lines of, “But justice must be served. We can’t let crimes go unpunished.” I do get that impulse, but it is a misunderstanding of justice. Punishing someone for a crime is a lot closer to vengeance. Our criminal justice system is one huge injustice. And I’m not just talking about the War on Drugs or for-profit prisons. Incarcerating anyone, even serial killers, is a bad thing. Plato says in the first book of The Republic that it can never be just to make someone worse, and it’s pretty much impossible to argue against that. There may be instances where incarceration is necessary, like if it is the only way to get a killer to stop killing, but that doesn’t make it just. It only makes it, at best, practical. (This is a huge topic that I can’t do justice (Ha! Get it?) to here. I’ll try to come back to it some other time.) Imprisoning Trump would be anything but practical.

I supposed I could have said this more simply. I could have said that the criminal justice system is the wrong way to deal with the political opposition. (Seriously, locking up your political opponents, no matter how detestable, is a real dictator move.) But I’m not sure Democrats (of which I am one) or the self-styled resistors view Republicans as political opponents anymore. They are an evil that has to be stamped out. That’s a big problem. The left will have a lot of trouble going forward if they can’t figure it out.

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