Once to every man and nation comes the moment to decide. In the strife of Truth with Falsehood, for the good or evil side; then it is the brave man chooses; while the coward stands aside. James Russell Lowell, 1845
While it is accepted that two basic purposes of government are to provide collective citizen protection and establish and maintain order so that society can flourish, the government’s purpose does not end there by far. Ultimately the purpose of government is to promote justice in all its forms — social, political, economic and environmental. Just as individuals are inadequate to provide for protection and order in society, justice can only be promoted collectively.
The United States has articulated and ostensibly promoted a high standard of justice to guide government. After all, the Preamble to the Constitution states that a basic purpose of the American Union is to establish justice. As St. Augustine said: “What are states without justice but great robberies?”
Providing justice in America has been a tortuous journey with imperfect results, particularly in terms of citizens of color, minorities, the poor and those who are just different. Sometimes events challenge our collective conscience and call us to decide what side we are on. We are experiencing such a time now because of the killings of Brooks and Floyd. Vast majorities of Americans feel that things are out of control. There is the temptation to resort to perceived expediency, to look to the leader who will by using force, intimidation and domination bring back order. We are tempted to look the other way and deny that a problem even exists. But we cannot escape facing the question of whether or not we will abandon our ideals and retreat to the misguided security of the autocrat? Will we simply ignore the problem? We have been ignoring the problem of race in this country for too long. Isn’t it time to address this problem in word and deed? “If not us who, if not now when?” (John F. Kennedy)
When legal means are not available, the unheard must resort to demonstrations and protests. But as President Kennedy said in his civil rights address: “Law alone cannot make people see right.”
This is more than an issue of policy; it is an issue of principle. Justice is a rightness of mind and conscience that first begins in the individual and is manifested in society. “Justice in the life and conduct of the State is possible only as first it resides in the hearts and souls of the citizens.” (Plato)
While no nation has ever been totally true to its ideals, are we to abandon these ideals, particularly when it comes to equal treatment and equity. Are we to subscribe to these ideals only verbally? In the movie Judgment at Nuremberg, Spencer Tracy in rendering the court’s decision says that a country is essentially “standing for something when standing for something is the most difficult.” Those who do nothing are complicit accessories to evil. This issue concerns us all, even in southwest Montana.
As citizens, do we believe and affirm in thought, word and deed the promise of America — that all must be treated equally under law; that all will not be denied the rights and privileges of citizens with regard to race, gender, socio-economic status, sexual preference, etc.; that all will treat others as they themselves would like to be treated — the Golden Rule. Are the Constitution and the administration of law in this country color blind? These are questions for each citizen. We cannot leave the answer just to politicians. We are all called to answer for ourselves and our nation the question of the Harlan County Kentucky coal miners: “Which side are you on?”
Time and again in the history of our country we have begun to recognize the problem of unequal treatment and begun to address it only to step back. Will this be another such time? The demonstrations will fade but will our moral purpose and resolve fade? Other issues will clamor for attention but will we lose sight of the American promise? The American writer and orator Robert Ingersoll said: “The triumph of justice is the only peace.”
Dr. John W. Ray teaches classes in political philosophy, political science and ethics at Montana Tech. The views expressed are his own and do not necessarily reflect the views of Montana Tech.
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