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Articulation of nuanced principles is vital to justice

In the current war against the Islamic State, several voices have been calling for a review of the mindset with which a fundamental resolution of terrorism will be achieved. Some articles, such as “The Reign of Terror” by Tomis Kapitan, published in the New York Times, have pointed out that even as the world presents a united front in condemning terrorism, the rhetoric of destroying a vile enemy may be hindering efforts at identifying causes ― despite their nonjustifiability ― behind the frenzied hate.

This brings us to the necessity of articulating a reformulation to present the usual method of resolving conflicts in a more clear, cohesive and just way.

Evil is never justifiable, but the causes behind its various forms can be laid out in order for them to be addressed.

“To understand is almost to justify” critics such as Richard Cohen of the Washington Post and Roger Cohen of the New York Times have said of allusions to understanding the mindset of those behind the Holocaust recently. This criticism reminds us that attempting to clarify causes behind acts of evil have to proceed in tandem with denouncing them.

The first necessity is to lay out a framework that excludes unrealistic, all-excluding principles. By this, it should be meant that no justification can be exaggerated without limit.

A classic example is the “they did it first” line used to justify retaliatory action against an opponent.

Whether between people or nations, this is usually a flawed and only partially helpful way of framing a conflict because relying on any one factor leads to a slanted understanding of the nature of the dispute.

In other words, the chain of causation always runs deeper and longer than what is emotionally appreciable to the wounded party.

Instead, the proper way of putting the argument is “no matter what reasons the aggressor may have had, the act that has caused harm is unjustifiable.” The concept of an action being “unjustifiable” must be further defined. Several possibilities are available here, such as the retaliatory action violating the principle of proportionality, minimum tolerable threshold of behavior or even having expired its effective action date.

The principle of proportionality is important in the arbitration of disputes. If one party in an argument starts shouting when the other party is still keeping his or her voice at conversation level, that can be considered an escalation, and an escalation counts against whoever did it in the final arbitration.

The minimum tolerable threshold of behavior can be defined as a line drawn around the methods by which parties can be allowed to resort to, in the course of carrying out their argument.

For example, a line that is widely accepted in society is keeping the argument to verbal clashes, not physical.

That may entail bystanders standing by as the fighting parties raise their voices as the argument becomes more heated, and even scream at each other, but intervening when one resorts to a physical attack.

And here it must be said that the principles can also exist in tension with each other. If one party violates the principle of proportionality by suddenly raising his or her voice, or throwing out a particularly nasty personal insult, the opponent may start resorting to punches.

In that case, both parties have negative marks against them in the tally of justice, but the weighting of the seriousness with which the two principles have been flouted are most likely not going to be same, depending on the harm done.

One would suspect, in this case, that the party who lost control and became physically aggressive has committed the more serious wrong.

The “expiry date” principle is a dirty concept in the sense that it carries with it the mean-spiritedness of vengeance. Nevertheless, it is an active and usable concept in the justice system. Basically, once harm is committed, there is a certain point by which society considers the right to punish or hold the person accountable to be forfeit. It is often called the “statute of limitations.” For different acts, the seriousness of harm done is assigned varying lengths of retroactivity.

Attempting to delve through and construct a system of arbitration may sound very quaint and needlessly complicated, but the project is the foundation of any reasonable system in the execution of something close to “justice.” In addition, articulation is vital to restoring peace on the individual as well as the national level, because conflicts occur, big and small, every day with people resorting to these principles.

(Editorial Desk, The China Post)
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