The problem with vindictive justice

My friend Sarah Morehead wrote a very moving, personal post about how vilifying sex offenders actually encourages further abuse:

Put away your pitchforks for a minute and hear me out. We’ve all seen it happen and maybe even participated in the diatribe ourselves. A convicted sex offender is sentenced and the shouts of “Monster!” and “You deserve what you’ll get in prison!” (and worse) erupt from our networks.

Just yesterday, we learned that Jared Fogle (former spokesman for Subway) was assaulted in prison, where he’s serving time for possessing child pornography and engaging in “commercial sex acts with underage minors,” as the government filing put it. My friends (theists and atheists alike, incidentally) gleefully cheered the “justice” and “karma being served.”


I know this vindictive feeling well. The last words I said to my abuser were “You’re dead to me” over the phone as we were breaking up and he kept repeating, “I’m sorry you got hurt,” which is the worst not-pology I’ve ever heard. Not “I’m sorry I hurt you,” but “I’m sorry you feel hurt,” once again shifting the blame on me for reacting appropriately to what I later learned was coercive manipulation. He was so good at it, I didn’t realize what was happening. My eyes slowly started to open as friends confronted me to tell me what they saw from the outside. Looking back on it now, I can’t believe how blind I was. I cringe at the thought that I was a “victim” for so long – five years.

So yes, I know the feeling of wanting violent, vindictive justice. I wanted him to know exactly what I felt when he told me “Trust me, you’ll like it, you’ll change your mind, this won’t hurt.” I wanted him to know what it felt like when I realized he lied. And he wouldn’t stop.

I don’t wish for that anymore.

Now, I’d wager most folks on my News Feed consider themselves to be “good people,” and I’d agree with most of them. And I, for one, don’t think anyone deserves to be assaulted or the victim of violence whether they’re “good people” or not. Our hearts break for any victim of sexual assault — and when it’s a child, or children, we want to circle our wagons and do our best to protect them. But does advocating vigilante justice help or hurt children in the long run? In a public post on my Facebook page, and similar posts on friends walls, I explained my problems with this reaction. In short, we were countering one form of violence with another, and we were creating a warped profile of child predators.

Sarah has more than earned the right to speak with knowledge on this subject. She endured a parent’s worst nightmare when abuse happened to one of her own children.

I had, and still have, moments of indescribable grief, sadness, anger, and a myriad other awful emotions that creep in when you’re alone with your thoughts at 3:00 a.m. It will take years of coping, adjusting, and grieving for me and my children to come to grips with the magnitude of what had happened. I’m relieved that the truth is out. But it’s not easy, and I don’t know when, or even if, I will ever be able to manage forgiveness.

But I don’t have a “let’s love and respect the predator” attitude either. I don’t. Nor would I ask anyone to forgive their (or their children’s) abuser. I can’t. I won’t. We can embrace our emotions while simultaneously condemning violence as retribution. When we justify violence for the sake of catharsis, we are reacting on a level that is no different than the rationale of the abusers themselves: I couldn’t stop myself… I was overcome with emotion…

I reject the notion that reactionary violence is justified. I can be angry and I have every right to my feelings. Yet I am responsible for putting forth a rational approach to dealing with sex offenders. It’s not just for their sake. It’s for the sake of their victims — and potential victims in the future.

It’s taken years of therapy for me to arrive at this place myself. My personal research on the cycle of abuse has been quite eye-opening: many abusers have endured abuse themselves in some way. Was that the case with my abuser? I don’t know. But somewhere in the course of his life, he picked up the harmful idea that wearing a woman down with “Don’t you love me?” and “I bought you a nice dinner, you owe me” until she finally says “yes” counts as consent. Somehow, he bought into the lie that it’s okay to ignore her “no” if you’ve had consensual relations before.

Somewhere in the long journey of healing, I stopped hating Jason and started feeling sorry for him. I’m still upset with myself for never pressing charges when I had the chance, but ultimately I’m just sad about the whole thing. I don’t want to see him humiliated, tortured, or hurt in any other way. I want him held accountable. I want him to get the help he so desperately needs, so the cycle doesn’t repeat itself. I don’t want any more women to get hurt.

I still have bad days. I haven’t completely gotten over the anger, and don’t know if I ever will. But for me, redemptive justice looks like channeling that anger into activism, which is why I’m participating in a school production of “The ____ Monologues” (inspired by “The Vagina Monologues,” but it’s mostly original pieces by students).

Breaking an already broken person wouldn’t teach him anything. Using violence as justice satisfies a blood lust, and where does it end? How much suffering would have to happen in order for justice to be considered “served”? More to the point, what does suffering actually teach the perpetrator? Ideally, it would be empathy, but somehow I doubt that. At some point, the suffering becomes meaningless, and there’s no redemption in that.

If the punishment isn’t redemptive, then it isn’t justice.


3 thoughts on “The problem with vindictive justice

  1. I really appreciate this, difficult as it is. Because, frankly, my first instinct for any type of abuse is VENGEANCE. Yet I kinda don’t think that’s the good or loving response.
    Honestly, I’m still scarred and occasionally cry over an internet experience last year in which I was repeatedly told that verbal abuse was an okay response to other abuse, and that if I didn’t agree, I was helping perpetuate other types of abuse. :/
    It’s kinda nice to know that not everyone thinks that way.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Pingback: Let’s talk about hell! | Sarahbeth Caplin

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