“I went to the police like a good American. The two boys were arrested. They were brought to trial. The evidence was overwhelming and they pleaded guilty. The judge sentenced them to three years in prison and suspended the sentence. They went free that very day. I stood in the courtroom like a fool and those bastards smiled at me. And then I said to my wife: ‘We must go to Don Corleone for justice.’ ” - Amerigo Bonasera, The Godfather - Mario Puzo
It is said that you can tell what kind of person someone is by looking at who they keep as their friends, how they treat their enemies, and what their favourite stories are. I’ve always believed that a good story should ask a central question. My all-time favourite story has, and will no doubt remain, The Godfather – whether in the majestic splendour of the silver screen or in between the pages of a paperback – because it asks the central question of what is justice. In the hazy smoke filled backrooms of mafia dons and their capos, or out in the wild hills of the old world where silence is a virtue and vengeance is a code, it asks the audience again and again, what is justice?
The story opens with the Italian-American mortician, Amerigo Bonasera, asking Don Corleone for justice for the attempted rape and brutal assault of his daughter. Amerigo Bonasera represents the union between the old world of the Sicilian countryside, and the new world of the New York streets, its writ into his name – taking the italicanised form of his new home (the name of the cartographer who first penned America), and the family name of his ancestors.
He had initially, “Like a good American” gone to the courts and trusted in the rule of law. The evidence was overwhelming, the two American boys who had assaulted his daughter had admitted their guilt in court, both sides were legally represented and adjudicated by a judge. To the outside eye the protocols and the apparatus of justice had been observed and followed. Only the judge sentenced the two Americans to a light sentence of three years, a sentence which he then suspended, and the criminals walked free before Amerigo’s eyes. One of the Americans was the son of a powerful politician; both of them came from “respectable families” (‘respectable’ seems to hold the same nebulous meaning as ‘gentlemen’ does for the white colonists who owned human beings as property) and had “clean records”. While they had acted like, “the worst kind of degenerates” they were allowed to walk free under the guise of justice. So it asks the question – what is justice?
If we are all born free and equal, given access to the same universal set of rights that are not to be infringed by anyone – including the freedom to live a life free of violence and persecution – is it just when the laws are only selectively applied depending on your station of birth? In the legacy of the Magna Carter that declared that we are all equally subject to laws regardless of station, and the Code of Napoleon, founded on the universal premises of liberte, egalite, and fraternite, is it justice when you pick a different set of laws for a different set of people?
If we accept that we are all human beings, endowed with unalienable rights, why are we unable to live up to this lofty ideal?
“I believe in America.” Amerigo insists. America had given him the freedom to start his own business; it had helped him build his fortune – ensuring his property rights were protected under the rule of law. It had given his daughter the freedom to choose how she would live her own life, instead of under the shadow of ancient traditions.
But America had not given him justice, the criminals who had savagely beat his daughter to the point where she was hospitalised, were given a stern talking to and let go unpunished. The wealthy scions of dynastical families were exempt from the same rule of law he was subject to. There were no attempts at reparations or reconciliation – it was rules for thee but never for me. So Amerigo went to Don Corleone– to a man who did not pretend to abide by the rule of law – to give him justice, invoking his ancient right of vendetta.
Justice and laws are seen as fundamentally entwined but laws are products of the societies they are designed for and reflect its values. For example, most American food products are illegal in the rest of the developed world because they violate health laws regarding what chemicals and substances are fit for human consumption (with such wonderfully appetising names like Butylated Hydroxyanisole). By strange coincidence the rest of the developed world has a much better track record for diabetes, obesity, and the well-being of their citizens but freedum isn’t free.
Historically laws are inexplicably tied with the concept of property, and jurisprudence (the theory or philosophy of law) correlates to the economic advancement of society through four levels: hunter-gather, pastoral, agrarian, and industrial, as population density increases (you could argue that we now live in a fifth level of a post-industrial or rentier society but that is another topic for another day). Hunter-gatherer societies have no concept of individual property because tools are collectively owned by the tribe; the concept of marriage is often replaced with polyamory because inheritance and property are hand in hand. Marriage historically existed as a means of securing the man’s inheritance by ensuring his children are actually his by legally preventing the wife from sleeping around (as well as bartering chips for strategic alliances). So outside of the golden rule of don’t be a dickhead, you don’t need laws. Traditions and rituals may emerge based around religion and tribal practices of chiefdom, but you don’t have the need for courts or a legal system.
In a pastoral society – where property exists in the form of animals (sheep, goats, cows, horses) – you have a way to measure wealth (I have more sheep than you) but this wealth is fluid. Property exists but it can easily be stolen and because pastoral societies are nomadic (have to find new grazing grounds) you have no centralised authority or state to enforce laws. If someone steals from you, tries you cheat you, etc, there is no police for you to go to, so you take justice into your own hands and do it yourself out of necessity.
If someone steals from you, you kill them or maim them, because it is only assurance to prevent them from doing it again, and if you allow them to go unpunished it is a stain on your honour and respect (potentially empowering others to do the same because they think they can get away with it). It is an ugly but necessary deterrent to ensure all parties can co-exist peacefully and respect the rights of each other. The cohesive social unit is the family, an intergenerational assemblage of people connected by blood ties, and because the concept of property exists marriage becomes a tradition. The reproductive rights of women are strictly controlled to ensure male property rights and succession.
In pastoral societies revenge becomes a powerful social force, writ into the culture, because it is a necessary check to ensure justice. The Pashtun people of Afghanistan have vengeance codified as part of their cultural values (Pashtunwali – the code of the Pashtun people) however this is placed under the virtue of hospitality, even toward your enemies – the sword and the scales. In the Italian and Sicilian countryside you have vendetta – the ancient right of eye for an eye and blood for blood. While you may have systems of arbitration – tribal elders, neutral parties of respected community figures – to mediate disputes and to attempt reconciliation, you can also have a cyclical nature of violence begetting violence as the sins of the father pass down and feuds form between rival families without anyone to intervene.
It is only when you reach an agricultural society, where property is the land itself, that you have legal codes and courts because now you need records to prove you own the land. Populations grow massively from the increased food production and you see specialists (people who do things other than make food, i.e. all of us) emerge from the division of labour. But in order to enforce laws you need courts, you need people who you can call on to do violence on behalf of the state, you need bureaucracy to ensure there are written records.
From this you have the creation of the ‘rule of law’ where property rights are respected and enforced by the state (or the local lord in Feudalism) to ensure that different people can live together. But laws are subject to enforcement, heaven is high and the emperor is far away, so society is divided into castes: a slave or serf caste who do all the work, a warrior caste who beat people to get more slaves/serfs and form the nobility, a priest caste who exist to justify the caste system, and the ruling class of lords – inbred families drawn from the nobility. Those lower in the caste system have no say in how laws are written but are subject to them – the right to property can also mean the right to own human beings as chattel.
So the idea of justice – of a fair society founded on liberty and universal human values (first penned by slave owning aristocrats for other slave owning aristocrats) – is fine and dandy for the small minority of property owning, men, but is directly incompatible with the ‘rule of law’, where human beings who are supposedly born ‘free and equal’, are the property of this wealthy minority so attempts at freedom by these slaves is violating the property rights of their owners. We refer to this as the spirit of the law versus the letter of the law – legal theory versus legal practice.
An industrial society progresses this further by creating property rights for produced goods and ideas (patents, intellectual property, cultural and artistic property) and by levelling the legal playing field to ensure a fair system that (in theory) treats everyone the same. However in practice this simply solidifies caste distinctions by concentrating wealth further into the hands of those who own the means of producing wealth (landlords, industrialists, bankers) because the law only matters if it can be enforced, and those who do the enforcing and who write the laws are drawn from the upper castes. Penniless but blue blooded nobles married wealthy but common burghers (merchants) forming the proto-capitalist class – old money meets new money solidifying the social prestige and privileges of the former with the wealth of the latter.
We may have smartphones and laptops but fundamentally not an awful lot has changed - we still live in a stratified society of castes in all but name. Proletariats and precariats (a fusion of the term precarious and proletariat – so unstable workers i.e. millennials in the gig economy) do the work yet reap little of the reward. Military and police families who are uplifted through serving the class interests of the wealthy elite serve as the shock troops of colonialism – both overseas in search of new markets and resources, and back home in ghettos, internal colonies where wealth is extracted out of the communities by rent and fines.
We have a knowledge caste – white collar workers, economists, media pundits – who like priests of old exist to justify the caste system with the hand-waving mythology of neoliberalism, promising things will get better – just trust us. And above them all the business and political elite, merged at the hip, who rule with the worst excesses of absolute monarchy – defining laws as they see fit to serve their interests, calling on us to fight and die in their wars, living in gated communities of private manor houses and palaces of mirrors – yet will pay lip service to democracy and liberty, just in time for the next set of elections.
The views of what is justice for each of these societies are going to be fundamentally different because the material conditions that drive them are different. We may turn up our prim puritan noses at the polyamory of hunter-gather societies and call them backward savages, while conveniently overlooking that women in these societies actually possessed the agency and autonomy to choose their lovers without a culture of shame and possessed political rights thousands of years before their time. Conversely a pastoral society (or frankly any rational society) may view a college athlete raping an unconscious woman and getting off with a slap on the wrist because the judge 'didn’t want to hurt his career', or a police officer gunning down an unarmed citizen without consequence, as the height of barbarism.
The only real common ground between these four societies is defining justice in opposition to injustice – we can generally all agree on what is wrong if we can’t agree necessarily on what is right. The most literal meaning of injustice comes from Chinese characters – where the word injustice is comprised of the characters not and correct (which can mean righteousness, correct conduct, or justce). Given Chinese characters each have their own concrete meaning (in contrast in English the word cat – comprised of the characters c a t - has no reference point to the animal itself, it is a completely arbitrary meaning we have collectively agreed on) this is a remarkably simple and elegant definition.
We know something is an injustice if it is not correct. For example it is not correct that people are treated negatively by institutions by something they have no personal control over (like the colour of their skin), so we can we infer that justice is therefore what is correct. Justice does not mean equality in the absolute sense (i.e everyone is given the exact same amount of money) but fairness (each according to their ability, each according to their need).
If we go back to Amerigo Bonasera and The Godfather you see the interplay between what justice means to different societies. The Italian countryside, long ruled by corrupt officials, and between a pastoral and an agricultural society (there are landed country estates, alongside villages comprised of shepherds) there is a deeply engrained mistrust in authority figures. This is called Omerta – or the code of silence.
If you are wronged (e.g. Bonasera’s daughter being viciously attacked and the criminals walking free) you do not go to the state, because you have a feudal legal system where if your perpetrator is powerful (say the son of a politician) they own the courts or hold considerable influence. You cannot rely on the police to protect you because the police are often deeply corrupt and can flaunt their status with impunity, free from the consequences that befall ordinary people (like gunning down an unarmed person with no probable cause and being acquitted instead of imprisoned). So in a situation where the state calls on you to testify or to cooperate with them, because you understand the legal apparatus is deeply corrupt and does not serve your interests, you do not talk. You do not cooperate. If you happen to see an illegal activity that does not involve you (smuggling, black market trade, stealing from the rich) you say nothing and you see nothing because you understand the rich and powerful already steal out of greed, why should you turn on those who steal out of need.
Bonasera’s initial statement, “I believe in America” is a rejection of Omerta and that is what offends Don Corleone, but he accepts this slight. Bonasera wanted to believe in the rule of law in his idealised vision of America, that finding himself in an industrial society where the courts could be trusted to administer justice, where the police were not corrupt and served the people instead of the rich, he could trust in the system to correct the abhorrent injustice committed against his daughter.
After all he had paid his dues, he was a law abiding, tax paying citizen, who had stayed away from Don Corleone and the old world he represented. He had gone to the police and called on them to perform their duty as guardians of the peace, and the courts to arbitrate justice. He had given a lifetime of blood, sweat, and tears to build prosperity in America and to perform a vital function as a mortician to her people. But he had been let down crucially in his hour of need, when he called upon the state to choose between the interests of its elite and the interests of its people, and was bitterly betrayed by the legal farce it called justice.
In his rage, disillusioned with the noble ideals America projected but did not perform, realising that the new world carried deep in its heart the germs of the old world, and his American dream had become a nightmare, Amerigo invoked his ancient right to vendetta. He went before Don Corleone, an emissary of the old world, to give him justice – an eye for an eye. That those who hurt his daughter, confident in the knowledge that they were above the law, would themselves experience the pain they had inflicted on others as a reminder that no one is above justice.
From our lofty position of having never experienced the legal injustices the poor and marginalised face it is easy to say this is barbaric and mouth the pity slogans that an eye for an eye makes the whole world blind, and we should blindly place our trust in the ‘rule of law’. But we never question who commits the crime, why they commit the crime, and why some are allowed to get away with things we collectively agree are unacceptable.
People are not frenzied chimpanzees who leap into a blind rage and resort to violence when facing the slightest provocation – there is a cause and an effect. In asking that central question of what is justice The Godfather doesn’t call on us to judge the actions of its characters by our modern moral sensibilities, but to understand the causes and factors behind why they do what they do. By asking what is justice The Godfather evokes the secondary questions of can justice exist without the law, and how do the powerless get justice from the powerful. These questions are just as relevant today as they were four decades ago.
In an age of deregulation, where non-living corporate entities possess more rights than living human beings, where there exists groups of individuals who operate above the law yet expect us to abide by it, where the powerless are increasingly subject to more exploitation from the powerful, what is justice? What is justice to the people whose drinking water is being extracted for cents to the dollar to further line the gilded nests of overseas shareholders? What is justice to those whose homes, businesses, and lands were stolen by settlers with no ties to the land who shoot at them with lethal precision when they peacefully protest? What is justice to the millions of victims of American exceptionalism who live under the shadow of red, white, and blue bombs?
If we accept that we are all endowed with unalienable rights to guarantee liberte, egalite, fraternite, while simultaneously denying them to others, what is correct? Is it correct for those who cannot trust the apparatus of the state – the media, courts, and police – to accept the miscarriage it delivers them; or do they have the right to accept the revolutionary slogan of by any means necessary? It is this question of what is justice that challenges our of view of society because it makes us ask what it could be.
Perhaps that’s why we keep asking the same question; because we still haven’t found an answer.
 Adam Smith, “Jurisprudence Between Morality and Economics” Cornell Law Review, volume 64, issue 4, April 1979.
 Dean Trevor, “Marriage and Mutilation: Vendetta in Late Medieval Italy.” Past and Present, no 157, 1997. www.jstor.org/stable/651079
 http://foreignpolicy.com/2014/11/11/the-mountains-are-high-and-the-emperor-is-far-away/ -for an explanation of the proverb.
 https://www.hierarchystructure.com/feudal-system-social-hierarchy/ - European feudalism
http://www.bbc.com/news/world-asia-india-35650616 -Indian caste system
http://www.heraldica.org/topics/france/noblesse.htm#acquisition – background on French nobility of the ancien regime
 https://thesis.library.caltech.edu/8384/1/TadeiFederico2014Thesis.pdf extractive or exploitative colonialism thesis, executive summary can be found in the abstract.
 Michelle Alexander, The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colourblindness.
 Howard Zinn, A People’s History of the United States, “Columbus, The Indians, and Human Progress”.
 https://search.proquest.com/openview/5f91fec819672646bc9e7d24c777cc18/1?pq-origsite=gscholar&cbl=18750&diss=y for an overview of Omerta and the socio-historical factors in how it emerged in Sicily.
Born somewhere between the old world of Korea and the new world of New Zealand Isaac is an award winning writer, teacher of literature and nomad currently residing in Nanjing.