Retributive Justice and Restorative Justice

Retributive Justice and Restorative Justice

Most Americans are clearly rejoicing over the death of Osama bin Laden. And in listening to what people are saying, I think that sense of joy is based on the feeling that “justice has been served.” But what kind of “justice” was it? Why did that justice feel so good? And where do we go from here?

It’s important to remember that there is a difference been retributive justice, which gives us a primal sense of pleasure, and restorative justice, which is about our responsibilities as we try move forward from this moment on.

Retributive justice was the source of our pleasure or joy when we heard about bin Laden’s death, and those positive feelings are deeply rooted in human nature. Jonah Lehrer describes an experiment where subjects watched interactions between two people, some of which involved one person wronging another (for those know it, the experiment was the Prisoner’s Dilemma). As Lehrer says:

According to the data, when men (but not women) watched a [“bad person”] get punished, they showed additional activation in reward related areas of the brain…that same highway of nerves that also gets titillated by sex, drugs and rock n’ roll. Apparently, we are engineered to get pleasure from punishing those who deserve to be punished.

So the pleasure people were feeling over bin Laden’s death was immediate, emotional and instinctual. But things that are pleasurable are not always good for us or for society. After all, sweets feel good — and that’s what led to America’s  obesity epidemic. Similarly, those pleasurable feelings resulting from retributive justice are not the most important things to consider as we try to move forward.

Instead, we should also be thinking about restorative justice — which is about asking “what do we do now?” This is a harder, but more important question. There is no restitution for the lives that bin Laden took. There is nothing that can be done to bring those loved ones back. So how do we move ahead to create a better world?

I was particularly taken by the words of Rabbi Rachel Kahn-Troster, of Rabbis for Human Rights, who argued:

Repairing the broken world is not about what someone else might do, it is about us and how we bear the responsibilities given to us. Treating every human being as created in God’s image is difficult. Feeling compassion for the stranger, because we were strangers, is not an easy choice. The Talmud (Sanhedrin 65b) insists that the responsibility for healing is in our hands, if only we could overcome our own limitations: “Raba said: If the righteous desired it, they could be creators of worlds, as it is written, “But your iniquities have separated between you and your God [Isaiah 59:2].”

Indeed, the goal of justice is not to get rid of evil people — it is to get rid of evil. There is a story in the Talmud about a group of hoodlums who were terrorizing the town where Rabbi Meir lived. He prayed to God that these men would be killed. His wife Beruriah told him: “Do not prayer for the death of sinners, but rather for the death of sin. Then, sin having ceased, there will be no more sinners.” (Talmud, Berakhot 10a)

Yes, bin Laden is dead. But as many have noted, al Qaeda still poses a threat. There is still the possibility of retaliation. And that simple fact reminds us that our world is still far from whole. And so may we have the strength and wisdom to rid the world of wrongdoing and evil — not by focusing on the death of those who propagate it, but instead, through our ability to restore a sense of justice and peace to the world.


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