When NYPD isn’t teaching every cop in the country when and how to beat up suspects, it’s advertising the therapeutic value of vengeance. The detectives never fail to assure family members devastated by personal loss that they’ll get the bastards as if jailing or executing some marginal human wreck is a sovereign remedy for human tragedy or even necessarily very relevant. Politicians also endlessly cultivate the theme of revenge—“ we’ll ever rest until we get Osama or Saddam or Castro or the drug dealers, or…” Psychiatrists speak about people who are trying to be mad. As a culture, it sometimes seems that we’re engaged in an analogous effort to turn ourselves into spiteful Balkan peasants. Turning the other cheek is definitely out and the much better thing is apparently preventative face slapping. That said, it is ironic that so much of our troubles stems from a failure of retribution.
For the past thirty-five years American politics has been dominated not by a class of people but by a group of people who got their start with Richard Nixon. From that time to this, as has been proven not merely in books or public opinion but in actual courtrooms, these individuals have ceaselessly plotted against free government, committing break-ins, illegal wiretaps, show trials, extortion, perjury, war crimes in Central America and the Middle East, obstruction of justice, and theft of an election. The Nixonians are thugs who have never paid any real price for their actions and have drawn from their experience the apparently correct lesson that the more they get away with the more they will be able to get away with.
It is probably whistling past the graveyard to make the suggestion; but if we ever manage to bring down the Bush regime, there really must be a reckoning this time, not primarily to inflict pain on the guilty but to rectify the record and, above all, to drive the Nixonians out of public life once and for all. Justice is the point, not the self-indulgence of payback. The recent South African example shows that such an accounting is both feasible and deeply helpful.