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The Ways of Justice

ISSUE:  Fall 2017

We were just three weeks out from closing this issue when the Unite the Right movement—comprising Nazis, white nationalists, and Klansmen, among others—descended on Charlottesville and provoked a weekend of bedlam and terror that left scores injured and three dead. The community here was devastated at first, then rallied behind the loss of its own. But the fact that Unite the Right had chosen Charlottesville to begin with has triggered a painful conversation about the ugly racial dynamics that underlie what’s often referred to as “one of the happiest cities in America.” Many here feel it’s long overdue.

This coming to terms with racial truths—for both the city of Charlottesville and its most powerful institution, the University of Virginia—will be a slow and messy reckoning. It has already been a raw experience, both volatile and illuminating. Actions since that weekend speak to the profound need for redress, which isn’t just political but a fundamentally human need.

These days, there is an unsettling resonance between the conversations within and outside these pages—more so than usual, since the issue itself hangs together on various ideas of justice: how people define it, seek it out, wait for it, or are denied the closure it promises. Across the stories and features you’ll see here, a kind of physics of fairness begins to form: Action requires a reaction, forces seek a balance. This aiming toward fairness motivates a great deal of journalism—including the kind we pursue, wherein a systemic wrong demands an airing out in public, with the hope that the public can somehow right it.

It isn’t a clean process, by any means. Systemic ills possess an inertia that can take generations to address, and even then we don’t always move much. And so the purpose becomes not so much fixing the problem as engaging it.

Perhaps this issue’s most startling example of an ill that journalism seeks to bring to light is what’s known as the 100-mile-zone, the US Border Patrol jurisdiction that reaches deep into the US mainland, such that it includes nearly two-thirds of the American population. As Rachael Maddux reports, within this zone, Border Patrol conducts dragnets for undocumented immigrants through checkpoints, both permanent and mobile. US citizens are often caught up in this totalitarian trolling. Maddux herself has been on the bewildering end of a checkpoint stop, and her story puts forward the urgent question of why this agency has such broad powers that it can harass citizens and the undocumented alike with impunity, going so far as to put lives at risk. Even more nefarious is the fact that a majority of these transgressions remain invisible, since the agency has no protocol for keeping track of its actions beyond arrests. For Maddux, this lack of oversight and forthrightness is akin to a “black box,” where not even the agency itself knows exactly what’s going on.

This story of the 100-mile-zone stresses the perils of a system that fails to govern itself properly, where there is an almost treacherous lack of information and no protective checks and balances. There is, conversely, the nightmare of finding no reliable system at all, only institutional weakness, the kind that leads to people fending more or less for themselves—finding structure, for example, in ancient codes of justice that precede modern ideas of governance. 

Northern Albanians have endured this predicament for generations; the region’s political instability, compounded by bureaucratic corruption, has fostered a culture of vigilantism that stands in for the architecture of criminal justice. And yet, as Amanda Petrusich writes in her extraordinary journey into the world of Albanian blood feuds, “[d]espite believing these feuds to be barbaric and philosophically flawed—savage by any Western standard—I wondered if the blood feud was also the purest distillation of justice as practiced by a modern society, the least complicated restoration of some essential psychic balance. Blood let for blood let… Was justice not, at heart and freed from any attendant subtext, simply a faithful restoration of equity?”

This question animates the issue in hand, and is complemented by a look at the peculiar ways in which societies navigate ideas of fairness—from Jan Banning’s expansive photo essay on criminal-justice systems around the world to Alex Mar’s essay on what Slender Man—an online creation with real-world implications—reveals about juvenile justice in America and the vulnerabilities of adolescence in the digital age; from Jack Hitt’s decoding of Justice Antonin Scalia’s originalist motives to Madeline Drexler’s deeply reported meditation on the suicide epidemic in Bhutan, in which she explores the possibility of spiritual restitution and karmic balance.

The issues raised here range from impassioned demands for accountability to more subtle conundrums, and it goes without saying that the answers lie well beyond the scope of what a magazine can address. Instead we hope to offer an entry point into certain themes and provocations. This was the inspiration for our opening portfolio, on the Charlottesville tragedy, where, through the work of ten photographers, we tap into the indignation, incredulity, and horror at what transpired here in August—the maddening how and why and what next of it—framing it as a visual narrative that captures resilience alongside heartbreak. This last component—resilience—seems critical to any telling of the long story of justice. Resilience is implied in the very act of journalistic telling, be it through prose or photographs, since it presumes a faith in the public’s ability to not just redress the wrong, but learn from tragedy, and turn these provocations into actions that guide us toward becoming a more compassionate society.



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