The news today was covered with the story about Bush commuting Libby’s sentence (who he still may pardon), and many people that I know in Spain were ranting about how this was just another sign of Bush’s evilness. My simple answer was that the U.S. president is granted in the Constitution the express power to pardon (which also includes the power to grant commutations and amnesties). The Clinton’s were notorious for their pardon scandals, and almost all presidents have used the same power to grant pardons to all sorts of political scapegoats and amigos (even Ford pardoned Nixon). This power is seen as being part of the Separation of Powers in the U.S. Constitution, and the basic concept of forgiveness is considered one of the pillars of Christianity.
Nevertheless, the fact of the matter is that forgiveness is almost always necessarily unjust.
The obvious question you are probably asking now is, what is justice? No matter how you wish to define justice, essentially justice means that similar situations are treated similarly. In this sense, justice can be boiled down to a basic notion of foreseeablility and reliability. In general, justice (what we often call due process) can be divided into two types: substantive justice and procedural justice.
Substantive justice would mean, say when referring to a law, that the substance or content of the law is fair. A substantively just law would be one, say, that treated all those affected by the law equally. The mere fact that you do not like the law doesn’t make it unjust. For example, I may think that a traffic fine for speeding is too excessive or that the speed limit is too strict. But that doesn’t make the law unjust. It just means that I disagree with it. To follow the same analogy, a law that says that men have to drive at different speeds than women would be substantially unjust.
Generally we are more concerned with procedural justice (where injustice is easier to hide). Procedural justice means that the processes that govern us are constant and reliable. By reliable, I mean that you know that each time you enter the process, the outcome is foreseeable and will remain constant. Procedural injustice occurs when, for example, you are treated differently than someone else even though you have acted in the exact same way. Say for example, the company you work for says that it will give bonuses to everyone who meets a certain objective. You are one of five people who meet the objective, and yet you are the only one who does not receive the bonus. In this sense, you are treated differently.
To the same extent procedural injustice can also occur even when you are the one who benefits. Imagine that only you receive the bonus, or that police decide to let you go even though they have stopped everyone else. For example, I never understood why the “first would be last, and the last would be first”. Where is the fairness there? If we have all abide by the rules, shouldn’t all be treated equally?
One of my favorite scenes in Schindler’s List covered this very notion. Schindler is trying to convince Goth to stop killing so many people. He does so by explaining that the Roman emperors’ true power was not derived from the obligation to punish but from their power to pardon. So when someone was brought before the Emperor after having a committed a crime, the criminal knew full well that he would be punished and deserved to be punished. Punishment was foreseeable, expected, and fair. But, only the Emperor had that supreme and unique power to forgive. The Emperor was above the law in that he had that power to act unjustly and treat the criminal differently than what the process dictated.
But sometimes you’d think that the emperors, like most Biblically derived Gods, had made the rules so strict so that their ultimate power would be derived from the fact that everyone would eventually have to beg them for mercy.
My point being that any time that we are treated differently from others — given any free-be or when punishment has been forsaken — an injustice has occurred. Thus, forgiveness is essentially unfair, as it allows for people to be treated differently, just as Clinton pardoned a buddy for a crime that sent hundreds of other Americans to jail, or Bush pardoned his fall guy for actions that put other Americans behind bars for two years.
I suppose then that the only way we can truly be fair and be forgiving is to forgive everyone always. You make forgiveness part of the process. Ironically it is generally turn-the-cheek Christians who are also zero-tolerance-on-crime Republicans. Or at least when it is in their best interest.
Now whether some forgiveness is a necessary injustice is an entirely differently question altogether.