An Alphabet of My Likes and Dislikes: “J”

This is a post belonging to a new blogging project — the title is pretty much self-explanatory, I think; the project’s introductory post can be found HERE.  Credit for the idea: BeetleyPete.

As always, the only thing linking the two items mentioned in this post in my mind is that they both start with the same letter of the alphabet.




How do I care about justice?  Let me count the ways …

Or maybe better not, as we’ll still be here next week if you let me get started on this one — as you just might have concluded from my screen name if you’re familiar with Greek mythology.

Anyway: Justice, and equal access to justice, is one of the absolutely indispensable prerequisites of a fair and balanced society.  Nothing has made this clearer in recent months than the cases that fueled the Black Lives Matter movement.  For a state to function as an organized body, it is indispensable for that state itself to be the body that dispenses justice — and to actually be seen doing so.  Because if there is no central institution fulfilling this function and seen to be doing so, private individuals will feel compelled to take to vigilante acts to make up for the (real or perceived) lack, and that is the straight path towards lynch mobs, mafia wars and, ultimately, civil war and the total destruction of civil society.  The same is true if, as currently in the U.S., there is a widespread perception of bias in favor of one group (“whites” / Caucasians), or maybe more to the point, bias against everybody not belonging to that group (Blacks, Latinos, and, by and large, also members of all other “non-white” ethnic groups).  “We the People”, as expressed, for example in an American prosecutor’s appearance “for the People” (or, for that matter, a German court judgment expressly being pronounced “In the Name of the People”) only works if “the People” really are “we: all of us” — and everybody with the same standing and rights, not only in theory but also in practice.

The Sumerian Code of Ur-Nammu (Istanbul Archaeology Museums, Ni.3191) — detail of the
Babylonian Code of Hammurabi stele (Louvre, Paris) — Ma’at wearing the feather of truth —
detail of a 13th century Flemish copy of the Code of Justinian (Ghent University Library). 
(Image sources here, here, here, and here.)

Although today, this notion is intrinsically embedded in our concept of democracy, it is something that even the earliest highly organized societies (such as those governed by the Cuneiform, e.g. the Sumerian and Babylonian codes) understood; similarly, in Ancient Egypt, Ma’at was both the name of the goddess of justice and the summary term standing for the concept of justice, or more precisely, “the way things ought to be”.  In all of these societies, administering justice so as to guarantee a well-ordered society was the ruling prince’s sacred duty to the gods; the realization that they took this duty seriously goes some way (though by far not all of the way) towards explaining their societies’ comparative longevity.  Interestingly, in Ancient Egypt — in sharp contrast to the later-emerging Greek and Roman societies — women had standing in court in their own right and, substantively, essentially the same rights as men.  Yet, women’s rights aside (however much a big “aside” that may be), it was in Ancient Greece that justice for the first time was wedded to the concept of democracy; important tenets of the Greek and (subsequently) Roman systems of justice are still predominant today, most notably the central concept of due process and impartiality: Everybody is entitled to their “day in court” and to an equal hearing.  This notion, embodied by the depiction of the goddess of justice (Themis and Iustitia, respectively) as blindfolded and holding balanced scales, even made it into the great plays written at the time:

“ATHENA: There are two sides to this dispute. I’ve heard only one half the argument. (…) So you two parties, summon your witnesses, set out your proofs, with sworn evidence to back your stories. Once I’ve picked the finest men in Athens, I’ll return. They’ll rule fairly in this case, bound by a sworn oath to act with justice.”
Aeschylus, Eumenides

“In case of dissension, never dare to judge till you’ve heard the other side.”
Euripides, The Children of Herakles

And perhaps most famously:

“Auditur et altera pars.” (“Both sides shall be heard,” or literally, “the other side shall be heard as well.”)
Seneca, Medea


The most important source of Roman law still known today is the 6th century collection known as Corpus Iuris Civilis (CIC), compiled by and on the orders of Byzantian emperor Justinian I (Justinian the Great).  It catalogues virtually the entire body of Roman law (and its development over time) as known and documented up to Justinian’s reign.  Justinian’s own addition, the Codex Iustinianus, comprised the fundamental Roman laws issued from the reign of Hadrian to that of Justinian himself and is one of the collection’s original three (later four) major parts.   Yet, it is significant — and telling — that this is an “Eastern Roman” (Byzantian) compilation, as “Western Rome” — the Western part of the Roman Empire — had by that time been overrun and in essence conquered by (chiefly) Germanic tribes.  These tribes, though able to mount powerful armies, were organized on the basis of families or clans, with only limited powers given to the tribe’s leader.  Most significantly, justice, according to Germanic law, was each family’s own, not the tribe’s business: and while this neither meant out-and-out lawlessness nor (necessarily) neverending hostilities between individual clans once a member of one clan had caused a significant injury to a member of another clan (“a life for a life … for a life … for a life, etc.”) — indeed, not only were revenge killings regulated, there was also a detailed system of penalties owed in money or property based on the nature and severity of the injury, in some cases in lieu of the offender’s life or limbs — it was necessarily a setback for the administration of justice as such; never mind due process and equality.  Only when, in the early to high Middle Ages, the tribal societies were gradually pushed back and replaced by organized states (the kingdoms and principalities emerging in the territories where the tribes had settled), did those states gradually wrest back the notion of justice being administered by the state itself; even if, for the foreseeable future, on behalf of its monarch and not on behalf of “We the People”. 

Still, it has taken the Western World a millennium or more to claw its way back from tribal justice and its legacies — some of them, like trials by ordeal and witch hunts, expressly sanctioned by the church –; back to what our Greek and Roman ancestors had already known: court proceedings based on evidence, due process, and equal access to justice.  Now that we’ve finally regained it, we had better treasure it.  And I am more than a little unsettled by the fact that, barely 30 years after the fall of the Iron Curtain and less than a century after the end of WWII, undemocratic movements are not only rearing their ugly heads again in many parts of the world (including my own), but, where they have managed to ascend to power (such as in Poland and Hungary), they are already busily dismantling the independent justice systems and guarantees of citizens’s rights so recently established in their respective countries.  Make no mistake: interference with the impartial administration of justice is the hallmark of an autocratic regime; you don’t have to be familiar with the Nazi government’s infamous “letters to all judges” to realize that.

The International Criminal Court (The Hague, NL)
(Image source)

Obviously, no justice system will ever be perfect: for all the talk of deities and high ideals, it’s a man-made thing, and I shudder at the thought of justice ever being meted out by machines.  And although the passing of the International Declaration of Human Rights, the inclusion of human rights or citizens’ rights catalogues in most modern constitutions, and the creation of international tribunals such as the International Criminal Court (ICC), whose emblem I’ve included at the top of this post, are all, each in their own way, giant leaps forward, there will always be wrongs of such an unfathomable scale — such as genocide — that bringing the perpetrators to justice can (even if the prosecution is successful) only ever be one of several steps towards restoring peace, order, reconciliation and, well, civil society and justice.  I’ve seen this with my own eyes* when working on a case pending before the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia (ICTY), one of the ICC’s predecessor tribunals — but that work in particular, like nothing before or since, has also reinforced my conviction that there is really no alternative: if not even the the attempt is made to prosecute the offenders, their victims and those victims’ families — which in the case of genocide and similar human rights violations, means an entire victimized part of the population — will necessarily be left with the feeling that the offenders have “got away with it”, and that in fact, the more monstrous the crime and the more victims are left behind, the greater the chances for the perpetrators to go unpunished.  This, in turn, invariably brings vigilante justice back onto the playing field and perpetuates precisely the social friction that has caused the original offense.   We simply cannot afford to let this happen without a remedy.

Tl;dr: Do I care about justice?  You bet I do.


* Note: The BookLikes review linked here was my final post on a buddy read of Clea Koff’s The Bone Woman, the book in which Koff chronicles her experience as a forensic anthropologist working on some of the cases that would later come before ICTY and its sister court, the International Tribunal for Rwanda (ICTR).  The equivalent post on WordPress is HERE; however, in the WP version I deleted the personal addendum which I had put at the end of the BL post:

It is easily as long as the (already long) review itself and was spurred chiefly by the discussion we’d had on the various sections of the book, to my status updates for which I had added a bit of extra perspective on the cases discussed by Koff (just a summary of the legal aftermath, though, of which Koff herself only provides very little, combined with a bit of extra legal commentary).  The others had asked me, and I thought it only fair to my fellow buddy readers, to expand on my personal perspective after we’d all finished the book, but by the same token, I thought that anybody who had neither participated in the buddy read nor seen it happen on the BookLikes dashboard nor knew me from elsewhere would (at best) either not be interested in my experience or (at worst) misunderstand my comments as bragging (“look what I’ve done”), which was just about the furthest thing from my mind.  As WordPress does not allow for spoiler tags (or, at least it doesn’t provide for them, and I so far haven’t been motivated enough to try and figure out the relevant code for myself), I decided the easiest thing would be to just delete the addendum altogether.  Should BookLikes vanish once and for all, I may end up revisiting my decision not to include the addendum in the WP post (I did save it in my laptop’s “reviews” folder) … and I may then take another shot at working out the “spoiler tag” code, too.

For those who are really, really interested in all that detail, legal and otherwise, here’s a recap of all the links (be warned, though: it really is a LOT of detail):

BookLikes review, whole book (with personal addendum)
WordPress review, whole book (without personal addendum)
Comments on Part 1 (Kibuye, Rwanda)
Comments on Part 2 (Kigali, Rwanda)
Comments on Part 3 (Bosnia)
Comments on Part 4 (Croatia)
Comments on Part 5 (Kosovo)




Oh, beware, my lord, of jealousy!
It is the green-eyed monster which doth mock
The meat it feeds on. That cuckold lives in bliss
Who, certain of his fate, loves not his wronger,
But, oh, what damnèd minutes tells he o’er
Who dotes, yet doubts – suspects, yet soundly loves!
William Shakespeare: Othello (Act III, Scene 3)

Jealousy is indeed a monster, and it doesn’t require the devious machinations of a Iago to bring it to the forefront.  Next to lies (to which we’ll be getting later in this series), there is nothing that undermines personal relationships as cruelly and persistently as jealousy: All relationships, but especially personal ones, depend on nothing so much as trust; once that trust is shattered, the relationship will almost certainly become unsustainable — or if it is maintained, it will forever have changed its nature.  Moreover, jealousy turns its object into a possession, and no equal partnership can exist on that basis.

So get thee hence, monster — I have no use for you in my life at all.


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