Alphabet Soup: J is for Justify

June 7, 2014

Justify (verb) - to show to be fair or right; to provide a good reason for.

When it is said of something that “the end justifies the means,” it’s a good bet that some questionable if not downright immoral tactics were used to achieve what the doer thinks is a good, appropriate and fair outcome. It’s probably also a good bet that not everyone will see things that way.

A politician is convinced that he can save the country, so he uses underhanded or illegal strategies to ensure his victory. An employee hates the crooks he works for but can’t afford to quit his job, so he embezzles and anonymously “gives back” to some of their victims. A guest rationalizes that he paid way too much for a problem-filled hotel stay, so he “appropriates” a couple of towels and a bathrobe. Justified?

There’s plenty of subjectivity involved when pondering if some action is justifiable. You may or may not agree with my various pronouncements regarding the following:

Recently, a teacher in Detroit was immediately fired when she struck a couple of brawlers in her classroom with a broom handle in an attempt to stop the fight after not being able to call for help on a broken radio. And the boys who were pummeling each other while sending desks flying? One was suspended for ten days, one for 3. Were her actions justifiable? Probably so. Was the mother of one of the boys justified in threatening to file a lawsuit because of the marks on her son’s back? NO. Perhaps those marks came from being slammed into desks. Perhaps her son shouldn’t have been disrupting school. Perhaps she should be glad he wasn’t expelled or even arrested. I’m happy to report that the teacher has been reinstated.

Thirteen years ago, a Missouri man who robbed a store with a BB gun was sentenced to prison but never taken in due to a clerical era. This April the mistake was realized and the now 37-year-old husband, father, and contributing member of society was finally arrested. Should he have been arrested? Yes. Was it necessary to send the SWAT team to his house? No. Was the judge who released him a few weeks later justified in doing so? Absolutely. If prison is about rehabilitation in addition to punishment, then we should be happy that the man rehabilitated himself. He has “paid his debt” to society by becoming an exemplary citizen.

Great literature is fraught with the “justifiable?” question. In “Les Miserables,” Jean Valjean was imprisoned for 19 years because he stole a loaf of bread to feed his sister’s starving family and then compounded his sentence by trying to escape. Was the theft justifiable? Maybe. Were the authorities justified in sentencing him to such a long term? No. Was Valjean justified in destroying the papers that labeled him a parolee and taking on a new identity so that he could earn an honest living? Yes. Was Detective Javert justified in pursuing Valjean relentlessly for breaking parole? No.

It was my privilege this Memorial Day weekend to see a film that has had limited release called “The Railway Man,” starring Colin Firth and Nicole Kidman. It is based on the true story of British soldier Eric Lomax, who was tortured by the Japanese while a POW in World War II. In 1980, middle-aged Lomax learns that his primary torturer escaped hanging as a war criminal, and he also learns of the man’s whereabouts. Flashbacks show us the extent of his suffering at the hands of his captors, and we also witness his crippling post traumatic stress syndrome. Is Lomax justified in seeking out his enemy to exact revenge? That is the question that the film wants the viewer to debate. I highly recommend this movie.

A final anecdote: yesterday morning I was dismayed to see trash strewn all the way up my street. It hadn’t been there the previous evening. And I knew where the party was going on when I tucked in for the night. It was perhaps reasonable to assume that a party guest emptied his car when leaving. I was miffed, and my first thought was that I should gather up the mess and dump it on the party house lawn under cover of night. Could I justify that? No. Was I sure that I was blaming the right people? No. Should I blame my neighbor for a mess that more than likely a visitor made? No. If a neighbor thought that it was probably one of their guests who littered, shouldn’t they clean it up? Yes. So what did I end up doing? In late afternoon when the trash was still blowing around, I took a bag out and cleaned it up. Why not do something nice for the neighborhood? Plus, I theorized that anything done under cover of darkness was probably not going to rate high on the justified scale.

Turning the other cheek is often much harder than assuming a “that’ll show ‘em attitude.” Next time we find ourselves justifying our actions, we might want to look a little more closely at our personal ethics and theology, and –yes— anger issues.

My gratitude to those past and present who gave their lives for our country. Their sacrifices ensure that I have choices in how to live my life.