They pop up like magic mushrooms after heavy rain. Sometimes they're in single-digit groups, sometimes in hundreds and quite often these days numbering in the thousands. They wave signs emblazoned with slogans supporting their special causes which range from "SAVE THE RABBITS" to ''FREE TIBET" and all causes great and small between.
Among the words most used when protests are afoot are save, free and justice. That last word is usually reserved for courthouse protests while a trial is in progress, or mass rallies on parliamentary lawns. The protest signs demand the judge presiding over proceedings in courtroom-calm immediately free someone the crowd thinks wrongly accused, or bring in ever harsher judgment on a guilty party.
On the day Robert Fawcett, the young man responsible for the incomprehensible wholesale slaughter of sled dogs at Whistler, was to be sentenced, protesters gathered outside the courtroom demanding by sign and by voice: "Sled dogs need justice - Jail for Fawcett." They were exercising their cherished right to speak out and speak freely, but I was left wondering if they wanted justice or revenge.
Inside the courtroom, the horrors of Fawcett's days as dog exterminator were examined in wretched detail. The accused had entered a guilty plea to the charges against him but the prosecutor and the presiding judge wanted the full picture out in the open before passing judgment. And that meant a full recitation of the facts - including what had happened to Fawcett in the aftermath of his days of madness. So the judge heard the grim details of the mass execution and of the death threats that had forced the Fawcett family to leave their home and take residence in a modest hotel, from which they were again forced to move when the death threats followed.
After hearing the evidence, the judge decided to sentence Fawcett to years of probation, hundreds of hours of community service and a series of court-imposed restrictions of his lifestyle. The rule of law, that other most precious aspect of democracy, had spoken, but the judge's decision inflamed those who wanted "justice" but not rule-of-law justice. They knew what their interpretation of justice was, and it demanded incarceration in jail or something even tougher.
It all left me wondering at which point a cry for justice becomes a demand for revenge. In Canada we, along with most democracies, abandoned the death penalty as the ultimate punishment for murder years ago. There are still many who would like to see it returned, and many more who think we have gone too soft on "justice" and demand harsher penalties than trial judges proclaim. Would a return to the ancient law of "an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth" satisfy demands for justice?
We lean, or claim to lean, toward the belief that "the quality of mercy is not strained. / It droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven / Upon the place beneath. / It is twice bless'd: / It blesseth him that gives and him that takes. / 'Tis mightiest in the mightiest: it becomes / The throned monarch better than his crown. ... But mercy is above this scep-tred sway, / It is enthroned in the heart of kings, / It is an attribute of God himself; / And earthly power doth then show likest God's when mercy seasons justice. ... Though justice be thy plea, consider this, / That in the course of justice, none of us / Should see salvation: We do pray for mercy; / And that same prayer doth teach us all to render / The deeds of mercy."
That's a long quote from Shakespeare's Merchant of Venice, but I think it worth mulling over when we feel the urge to protest and demand justice for someone or some favourite cause. We
should be sure the justice we demand is graced with mercy and not contaminated with rage and revenge which, as the old saying goes, is a dish best served cold.
An appeal then to protesters of all stripes: Exercise your rights, raise you voices and your signs. But make sure that in good conscience you do so with the mercy we all seek when we make grave mistakes in life.
It's something a good man tried to teach us some centuries ago when others killed him because he challenged their beliefs. His enemies clamoured for his death in the name of justice, and when the trial judge told them to go ahead and execute him, the accused said: "Father forgive them, for they know not what they do."
That "quality of mercy" is dangerously lost if when we chant for "justice" we really mean revenge.
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