Frankenstein in Baghdad Q7: Justice

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"I was careful about the pieces of flesh that were used to repair my body. I made sure my assistants didn’t bring any flesh that was illegitimate—in other words, the flesh of criminals—but who’s to say how criminal someone is? That’s a question the Magician raised one day."

What does the book have to say about justice, and about good vs evil?

Comments

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    edited June 1

    Good question. For me, the book is all about justice and everything about it: who decides what is "just", what is done about it, what should happen to criminals or sinners, and what should happen to victims; when are crimes justified, or when violence is justified.

    To start, Whatsitsname exists to bring justice to the victims of terror. That's taken to be the execution of those responsible. That raises the first question: is the death sentence justified? Who should be executed? What benefit comes from it?

    Will I fulfil my mission? I don't know, but I will at least try to set an example of vengeance - the vengeance of the innocent who have no protection other than the tremors of their souls as they pray to ward off death.

    And when are crimes justified? Whatsitsname kills a man for his eyes, just so he can continue is mission of avenging others. As he says,

    In retribution for this victim, who should I exact vengance on?

    In other words, when does the end justify the means?

    I don't think the book gives answers to these questions. Or rather, it gives a possible answer, shows us what that answer entails, and makes us ask whether that easy answer is one we want.

    And that means I don't really know how to sum up my feelings in a short post here. What is justice? What is vengance? What purpose do justice, vengeance, rehabilitation serve? What should be the response to gross crimes?

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    And I forgot to add the reference to

    three types of justice - legal justice, divine justice and street justice - and that however long it takes, criminals must face one of them.

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    It made me think about justice vs vengeance. Is justice always requiring like for like (ie an elaborately extended eye-for-an-eye concept) and if so what is vengeance? And how does either apply to a person who has carried out multiple murders - the perpetrator can only be killed once, so the equation can never, so to speak, balance. Traditionally (at least in western societies) justice has been tempered by mercy as a countervailing force, so that the endless requirements of payback get halted sometime. Which made me wonder where, if anywhere, the mercy was in this book? Maybe with how Elisha's story unfolded?

    As @NeilNjae said, the concept of justice / vengeance got steadily extended, starting with a fairly straightforward perpetrator received the same as he gave out but then becoming more blurred as the story unfolded. What is the right response to a person who gave orders? And then the whole business about needing eyes to carry out job A leading to a completely unwarranted crime (by the standards set out at the start).

    There was some coverage of the business of nobody being truly innocent, especially when you include thought life as well as outward actions, but probably not as much tackling of that thorny subject as I would have liked. But the principle was certainly raised for us to consider - if you set up a system (in this case a created life-form, but it could just as easily be an abstract set of laws or whatever) which simply focuses on justice with no counteracting impulse towards mercy, then the trend will always to be more and more retribution, with less and less triggering cause for the legal action.

    Larry Niven talked a bit about this in his near future books, where criminals were executed for the purpose of organ donation - initially for obvious crimes such as murder, but steadily going down the scale of misdeeds to less and less serious ones. Here the principle is allowed to emerge organically from the book rather than being raised explicitly as a discussion point.

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    What is the point of executing a murderer? It doesn't undo the deed. Why are two grieving families better than one?

    What is the point of punishment? Is it to put right the wrong (restorative justice, or paying damages)? Is the punishment so the criminal doesn't repeat the crime, because they know the cost? Is the punishment to deter others from committing the crime in the first place? Is it a social ritual to make the rest of society cohere? And where does rehabilitation come into that, getting someone to turn themselves around and become a good person? How much is the mechanism of justice about addressing the past vs making the future better?

    There aren't universally good answers to these questions! But this book did a very good job of raising the questions, and highlighting some of the consequences of some of the answers.

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    So, one of the things that I got from the book was that justice was fleeting, and also individual. There was quite a lot of 'what goes around, comes around.' The state, which is the body nominally responsible for law and justice, certainly wasn't handing it out evenly. I think the suggestion was that Saidi the publisher was grassed up after he crossed the Brigadier. And in the end, Hadi is arrested. For what? Telling stories? Maybe it was all just street justice.

    So I felt this was a world where you had to claim justice where you could find it, define it how you needed it, whether that be reparation or retribution. But the seeking of justice is fraught - if you seek to apply justice, the process leads you inevitably to wrong others. So,by trying to bring about justice, you are forced to wrong others. Which means there's no real justice - it's an illusion. I'm not sure it that's an accurate observation on the nature of justice, but it's pretty profound, isn't it?

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    @Apocryphal said:
    So, one of the things that I got from the book was that justice was fleeting, and also individual. There was quite a lot of 'what goes around, comes around.' The state, which is the body nominally responsible for law and justice, certainly wasn't handing it out evenly.

    So was Whatsitsname dispensing legal, divine, or street justice? It's certainly not legal (state) justice. Is Whatsitsname an agent of the divine? I don't think so, despite the connections to St George. It's street justice, as you say.

    In fact, I think it's more vengeance than justice. There's no mercy in in what Whatsitsname does. There's no consideration of remorse or reform, no consideration of how things will be better in future.

    So I felt this was a world where you had to claim justice where you could find it, define it how you needed it, whether that be reparation or retribution. But the seeking of justice is fraught - if you seek to apply justice, the process leads you inevitably to wrong others. So,by trying to bring about justice, you are forced to wrong others. Which means there's no real justice - it's an illusion. I'm not sure it that's an accurate observation on the nature of justice, but it's pretty profound, isn't it?

    I think that's part of what Saadawi was trying to say, especially when Whatsitsname realised that everyone is partly criminal and no-one is wholly innocent. How can we demand justice (or vengeance) is applied to others without it also being applied it us?

    The other debasement of "justice" at the end of the novel is how Whatsitsname decides to continue killing, using the excuse of inevitable criminality, to continue its own existence. How much do institutions like police, courts, prisons act to perpetuate the status quo and their own existence, and how much are they concerned with serving society?

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    @NeilNjae said:
    The other debasement of "justice" at the end of the novel is how Whatsitsname decides to continue killing, using the excuse of inevitable criminality, to continue its own existence. How much do institutions like police, courts, prisons act to perpetuate the status quo and their own existence, and how much are they concerned with serving society?

    Totally agree - and also this is one of the major points of departure from the original Frankenstein, in which the creature kind of dallies with crime in the middle of the book but then turns away from it into a more remorseful state at the end. The book concludes with the creature moving away from human society, not because he is revolted by it (though would probably have good reason in terms of broken promises etc) but because he is sorrowful about what he has done and the potential risk he poses to others.

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    Sorry to be contributing quite late here.

    I thought that the discussions about justice were actually more about crime and punishment, and thought it was interesting that the response to crime was conflated with justice by violent people, as if justice can only be retributive rather than restorative, as say Elishva was looking for. E.g. Was her acceptance of a substitute the working of natural justice, or something else? What about refusing to follow her family (quite a few others also decided to leave at the end)? Was St George a justice-dealer, or a restorative power? Both he and Mary lost their heads and faces - what does that suggest?

    Also noticed a lack of discussion natural justice on the part of our main narrators, and the role of God in determining justice. Certain kind of modernity there, but I'm left curious if this is how the concept-complex has been worked out in both Islam, and in the various civilisations participating in present day and historical Iraq, and how much of this book's discussion is a strictly modern / post-colonial / global capital conception or reflection. However I am unlikely to delve, as Rosencrantz would suggest I should, or was it Goldenstern? (Just watched the film again).

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    @BarnerCobblewood said:
    Sorry to be contributing quite late here.

    I thought that the discussions about justice were actually more about crime and punishment, and thought it was interesting that the response to crime was conflated with justice by violent people, as if justice can only be retributive rather than restorative, as say Elishva was looking for. E.g. Was her acceptance of a substitute the working of natural justice, or something else? What about refusing to follow her family (quite a few others also decided to leave at the end)? Was St George a justice-dealer, or a restorative power? Both he and Mary lost their heads and faces - what does that suggest?

    I agree that "vengance" was more central to the book than "justice", as there's more to justice than retribution and punishment.

    What do you mean by "natural justice"? I think it's a term that gets used in different ways, and I'm not familiar with any of them.

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    From Wikipedia: In English law, natural justice is technical terminology for the rule against bias (nemo iudex in causa sua) and the right to a fair hearing (audi alteram partem). While the term natural justice is often retained as a general concept, it has largely been replaced and extended by the general "duty to act fairly".

  • 0
    That's a good point to bring up - in my understanding, "natural justice" is not only about retribution for wrong doing, but also reward for right doing. For example "it was only right that they helped her rebuild the house, after all she'd done for them".

    I'm not sure that this positive sense of natural justice has much of a place in this book, with the possible exception of widow Elishva feeling that her family was being restored - even if that was largely a mistaken perception on her part.
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    @RichardAbbott said:
    That's a good point to bring up - in my understanding, "natural justice" is not only about retribution for wrong doing, but also reward for right doing. For example "it was only right that they helped her rebuild the house, after all she'd done for them".

    That's sort of my understanding as well. I think of "natural justice" as a combination of both: the expectation of a fair, unbiased assessment of the facts, and everyone getting their "just rewards", whether positive or negative.

    By either of those definitions, it's hard to see how Whatsitsname was delivering "natural justice" to anyone. There was no examination or weighing of evidence, no seeking of alternative views, and no rewards going to those who deserved them.

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