Every so often the editorial team at LDV towers inadvertantly posts something that ordinary people actually find interesting. Unaccountably, this is never about Land Value Tax, proportional representation or Trident. The stats graph buckles and the thread concerned fills with – usually – anger of some kind.
This first happened way before my time with the thread about social workers breaking up families (which did serve a purpose, as we were able to pass along all instances of people needing help to John Hemming, whose campaign it was), then more recently came the Gurkhas and, today, there is the Baby P thread. It’s not so much the length of the comment thread – a relatively modest 59 at the time of writing; we’ve had arguments about the existence of god that have gone on twice as long. The signs are in the names on the thread – totally unfamiliar – and the way in which, at times, their jarring illiberalism intrudes on our inbred circle. This is no surprise as, for reasons of interweb magic that escape me, the LDV story is the top hit when you search for Baby P on Google at the moment.
And yes, some of the comments on there make me shudder, for all that I can see where the revenge instinct comes from. Sterilisation, execution, torture – being beaten up in prison is the mildest thing most commenters are wishing on the murderers. But reading this sort of stuff at length makes one detect patterns. It occurs to me that, for all that people claim to want “justice” in cases like this, what they really mean is that they want injustice to be perpetrated against the guilty, the kind of senseless, unexpected injustice, alarming, probably physical and beyond the rule of law, that overtook the original victim. They want something of commensurate unfairness to happen to the culprit. Of course, you can’t get much more unfair than three adults torturing a baby to death, so the unfairness required to balance it is immense. In terms of the “fairness” of the case, how can you hurt an adult as much and as indefensibly as a baby? To be as “helpless as a baby” is the most extreme definition of helplessness against injustice there is.
No wonder people hate the justice system. Justice is innately concerned with fairness. A legitimate and proportionate punishment that the state is qualified to mete out is by definition a fair one. An unfair punishment is what the victim’s family – or in this case public defenders – really want. Something out of the ordinary, something that infringes the rights of the guilty one on a personal rather than state-sanctioned level. You start to see how principles such as lopping a hand off for stealing might start to gain ground again in this country, after several hundred years of abeyance before the principle of “fairness”.
Fair is a big Liberal Democrat word, of course. And rightly so, but it probably wouldn’t hurt us to remember that it’s a relatively modern concept. The justice system is based on fairness to protect us from our own baser instincts, our instinct for revenge, for vigilanteeism and for disproportionate reaction. But it wasn’t always based on that. Our particular variety of fairness is a post-Enlightenment understanding – before that, what was known as “natural justice” held far more sway in the making of law. Many individuals secede from that post-Enlightenment understanding, historically speaking they’re not in an indefensible position and, occasionally, they turn up on LDV to remind us. I am moderately glad, I guess, that they do this, and moderately alarmed at what it means for liberalism and democracy. Can both exist? Would a democracy, fully constituted, vote against fairness?