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Monday, August 6, 2012

This guy was an intolerant, hateful coward, too

I'm talking about the apparent perpetrator of the massacre at the Sikh temple in Wisconsin. The fellow's music and history speak for themselves. White supremacist, punk rocker with a penchant for violent lyrics and all manner of hatred. He was the prototypical target of hate laws.

What I've written the past few days was not advocacy of any position on recent events, except insofar as I distance myself from American liberalism in a general way. I am pointing out the tactics and the actions of a few, and not the positions of anyone. I happen to think the positions of the Sikh temple gunman are unconscionable and irreconcilable with the US constitution and a rational concept of justice.

But it is not only people who target those of non-white skin and non-white religion who can be perpetrators of hate crimes. The typical victims can resort to them, too.

Ethics is not about justifying what we want to do. We can "justify" using hate crimes against people who commit hate crimes against us, but that is not ethics. Ethics pertains to the rightness and wrongness of the action we propose to take. Having been a victim of a heinous act does not give us the right to commit the same heinous act in return. If the act is heinous, then it is heinous, and we shouldn't do it. Killing innocent people is wrong. If some of "us" innocent people get killed, as horrible as it is, it does not give us the right to kill innocent people who belong to "them." Ganging up on a harmless guy reading his Bible is wrong. Having been ganged up on while minding our own business does not give us the right to gang up on a harmless stranger. Vandalizing a building is wrong. Going into a house of worship and shooting people is wrong. Having a racial epithet painted onto my front door does not give me the right to vandalize someone else's property. Do the Wisconsin Sikh's now have a right to go to the perpetrator's church (if any) and kill the congregants? No. Of course not.

Justice is not about getting even. Justice is about doing the right thing by others, even when it is not what we want to do. The lex talonis ("eye for an eye") is misunderstood if it is understood to mean that "I" get to do to others what they do first to me. No. The point of the lex talonis is to prevent excessive retribution. If someone puts out my eye, I cannot have their head. Its purpose is not to ensure a perpetrator is adequately punished, but to prevent victims from exacting excessive punishment.

Justice too quickly becomes vengeance. Ethics too quickly becomes an exercise in coming up with a good excuse.

Justice thus depends on an unbiased forum for adjudication. Ethics depends on squelching anger self-interest, and thinking clearly and objectively about the intended action. Vandalism, bullying, massacres all have in common an attitude of taking vengeance, and for what one believes to be a good reason. But, they are neither just nor ethical.

Anyway, there are all manner of intolerant, hateful cowards in the world. They seem to be coming out of the woodwork these days.

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