Let us stop thinking so much about punishing, reproaching, and improving others! We rarely change an individual, and if we should succeed for once, something may also have been accomplished, unnoticed: we may have been changed by him. Let us rather see to it that our own influence on all that is yet to come balances and outweighs his influence. Let us not contend in a direct fight – and that is what all reproaching, punishing, and attempts to improve others amount to. Let us rather raise ourselves that much higher. Let us color our own example ever more brilliantly. Let our brilliance make them look dark. No, let us not become darker ourselves on their account, like all those who punish others and feel dissatisfied. Let us sooner step aside. Let us look away.
Nietzsche’s not referring to issues of criminal justice per se; rather, in keeping with his recurring theme of resentment, the ways we concern ourselves with others’ business more than our own, the ways we take revenge for petty slights, and most importantly, the ways in which that drive for revenge (or “justice”, if you want to break out the linguistic cosmetic kit) warps us the longer we hold on to it. I had that beautiful passage in mind as I listened to some of the Inspector Javert-wannabes I know gloating over the news of OJ Simpson finally going to prison for a long time.
It’s not the issue of whether he was guilty fourteen years ago or guilty now that concerns me. I just find it interesting, and more than a little disturbing, to see people who have lived the last decade-plus paying little or no mind to the details of Simpson’s life suddenly becoming giddy at the thought of him spending the rest of his life in jail, as if this had been some festering psychic wound that had been preventing them from getting a good night’s sleep. I can understand the Browns and Goldmans feeling good about this, but everybody else – Jesus, seek some help.
I guess what bothers me is the thought that these are the kind of people that can tell themselves that this somehow makes things “right”, and believe it. I’m certainly not arguing to abolish laws or concepts of criminal justice, merely pointing out what I thought was so jejune as to be common sense, needless to mention: you can’t change the past and no amount of punishment will bring back the victims; you’ll just create more grieving friends and relatives. I vaguely recall a passage from one translation of a Taoist text – the Hua Hu Ching, I think – that was referring specifically to war, but it applies here: something to the effect of it being an absolute last resort, of course, and the need to treat it as an occasion of mourning that it should have come to this, to take no joy in the prospect of violent action. Of course, this is a culture that breaks out the same sadistic jokes about prison rape every time a famous (or infamous) person goes to jail (I mean, fantasizing about Martha Stewart being sodomized in prison? Really?)
I’m just always wary of people who are absolutely certain what other people “deserve”, whether positive or negative.