I always thought I had a good grasp on the idea of justice. I knew for instance that it had different meanings from legal, moral, and social perspectives. I knew there were philosophies of justice (distributive, procedural, etc.) which combined with those perspectives to create a framework of norms and laws that guided all Americans towards better behavior. Regardless of how many of us broke those laws, acted immorally, or even sought to harm the fabric of our society, I believed that framework of justice represented an ideal that most Americans shared. And regardless of the number of injustices in our society that hindered or even threatened that ideal, I saw our shared understanding represented by the Constitution and Bill of Rights as the compass that kept the country moving in the right direction.
But after the preliminary findings of the Mueller Report and the dropping of all charges against Jussie Smollett I’m not sure what justice in America is anymore. Within the span of three days what I thought were widely shared fundamental understandings of right and wrong failed to materialize. The preliminary conclusions of the Mueller Report and Smollett case were not a miscarriage of the justice system resulting from manipulation, corruption, or incompetence. They were not like the O.J. Simpson or Rodney King trials when large majorities of Americans refused to uncouple legal and moral concepts of justice to allow rationalization of a clear injustice. Instead, most of America has reacted to Mueller’s ‘non-exoneration exoneration’ of Trump and the ‘move on, nothing to see here’ conclusion of the Smollett case with the resigned defeatism of a down-on-their-luck gambler who just lost again.
America’s reaction to the two cases represents the culmination of our nation’s lost sense of justice. The connection between behavior and consequences has been torn asunder by the elevation of virtual ‘contacts and friends’ over real relationships in the lives of Americans. This has created a steady decline in the use of moral frameworks to guide behavior as the potential for immediate consequence has been removed from most daily interactions. Combined with the immediacy of modern communications which create a perceived lack of time available to make decisions in the first place, Americans increasingly determine the ‘justness’ of their own opinions and behavior solely through the context of their own lives. As a result, the concept of justice in America is no longer a shared sense of basic right and wrong. Instead it has become an aggregation of individual perceptions and definitions of justice as varied as the number of people watching. We now promote justice in America like a professional sport instead of a national principle. Instead of everyone sharing confidence in the same principles and systems of justice, we choose either the accuser or the accused and root as hard as we can for anyone wearing the same team colors. And in the end a loss is just a loss and you immediately start planning for the next contest. But when the rules of the game are defined on a case-by-case basis the plan is always the same: collect enough power, money, or influence to redefine justice and assure victory next time.
So how did it get to the point that it seems we are writing and rewriting the rules of justice before each game? One answer is that the foundations and principles of American justice have decayed to the point that no one really cares anymore. Our belief in equal opportunity, fair outcomes, and just punishment as the DNA of American justice has been compromised by our distrust of the government as the vehicle of fairness, cynicism towards politics, and our overall disagreement with most of our fellow Americans on most everything. The separation of action from consequence, and innocence from moral goodness, has enabled Americans to judge the actions and innocence of others without considering what those judgments mean for themselves and their own morality. This is the only way that supporters of both President Trump and Jussie Smollett can separate defense of Trump and Smollett’s behaviors from the ethical and moral realities they represent. As long as actions are not found to be definitively illegal and they benefit our perspectives directly, justice has been served. And even if they are found to be illegal there is no automatic moral stigma attached to the individual or their supporters precisely because we began with a distrust of everyone else’s definition of justice. In fact, it is disagreement and disdain for ‘other people’s justice’ that allow many to continue supporting Trump and Smollett despite the substantial legal evidence arrayed against both.
And so, it seems that America has allowed justice as a universal principle to decay while we argued over what it should have looked like in the first place. It was not killed by revolution or coup, nor has it been rewritten or replaced. Justice in America has simply been neglected in favor of increasing confidence in our personal moral judgments. This often misplaced confidence is fueled by the ability to selectively and instantaneously communicate with only those perspectives that confirm your own. And when we are confronted with different people, experiences, and definitions of justice they are so alien to what we’ve already convinced ourselves is right and wrong that we’re left with no choice but to consider them a threat. So anyone who questions the innocence of Trump questions the moral righteousness of Trump supporters which is tantamount to an attack on one’s person in a country where individual liberty supersedes all. Similarly, anyone who questions the innocence of Smollett questions the reality of hate crimes in America, as well as the virtue of the civil rights and LGBTQ movements born to fight them. I just wish everyone would remember where justice was as a priority at the founding of our country…
“We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defence, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.”
Dr. Darius Watson, PhD is a professor of international relations, political theory, and security studies. He is also the primary contributor to the news and analysis website drillbitnews.com, as well as the senior consultant for Watson Consulting & Analysis, LLC. Dr. Watson is an active scholar, analyst, and instructor with a record of commitment to publication, professional presentations, and most importantly his students.