Now that convicted murderer, escaped prisoner, and airliner hijacker George Wright has been captured in the nearby village of Sintra, those who knew him as Jorge Santos are beginning to ask people to write character references for him, in the hopes of winning some kind of leniency in US courts.
First of all, I'm not sure that exchanging his guns (That's what he used to murder gas station owner Walter Patterson after a series of armed robberies in 1962, and to hijack an airliner with 86 passengers aboard in 1972.) for the less confrontational manner of a con man, demonstrates the kind of character that deserves to be spoken for in a letter. One would think that someone truly rehabilitated would have a little more to show for 41 years of borrowed freedom. Even if one did, however - even if our fugitive had donated organs to fatherless children and volunteered to work in a leper colony - I don't see how acknowledging that in a letter is a worthwhile effort. His debt remains unpaid, and any efforts to repay it in a currency more convenient than that of the legal tender - in this case his incarceration - are wasted.
This should be obvious, but it is not. People have forgotten that the personification of justice is a woman, blindfolded, holding a set of scales. That blindfold is significant. It represents the fact that justice is, and must be, independent of emotion. Justice transcends flimsy constructs like the "empathy standard" devised by Supreme Court Justice Sonya Sotomayor. It exacts its own penalties, irrespective of circumstances. Those scales weigh guilt and innocence. They are mechanical, impartial.
It was not so long ago that people appreciated this innately. There was an understanding that civil society depended upon the impartiality of justice. Yes, God may forgive; he has that power and that right, but the courts of men do not - not, at least, if they wish to remain courts of law, instead of courts of opinion. This is what Herman Melville wrote of in Billy Budd, the story of a sailor who unintentionally strikes and kills an officer on his ship. No one was more worthy of character references than Billy, but he hanged for his crime, just the same. His captain and the rest of the crew knew that his crime was unintentional, but they also knew that failing to serve justice would jeopardize the entire ship. A civil society is no different from that ship. Justice - cold, impartial, transcendent - must be served. A life for a life is not some primitive custom we have outgrown. It is the way things are, and the way things will always be, as long as we inhabit this imperfect world.