Monday, May 09, 2005

Larry Niven was right: TANJ

SF author Larry Niven, in several of his books and stories, coined an acronymed phrase, There Ain’t No Justice, or TANJ. It never caught the reading public’s imagination as widely and deeply as did Robert Heinlein’s TANSTAAFL, There Ain’t No Such Thing As A Free Lunch (from Heinlein’s superb “The Moon Is A Harsh Mistress”).

But there really ain’t no justice. Well, my word processing program keeps nagging at me to say “isn’t” and I hate to cave in to such a fussy and otherwise inanimate object, but, OK, There really is, or at least often seems to be, no justice.

In the Times Free Press edition of Monday, 9 May 2005, is this headline on the front page: Some say justice system failed family.

Perhaps the first flaw, or at least the first one seen, is “some say” is too often a reporter’s and/or editor’s way of saying “I think.”

But the reporter does begin her story with “In the days since a man paroled for a 1995 murder confessed to killing his wife, stepdaughter and infant son, some have begun questioning Tennessee’s justice system.”

The man said to have confessed had been previously imprisoned for second-degree murder of his “girlfriend,” as the paper phrased it.

The story continues: The sister of the current victim “wants to know why he was released from prison after only serving 30 percent of his sentence.”

There are two questionable sentences, that given to and served by a convicted murderer and that written by the reporter – although some mis-called copy editor could have re-written it to be that clumsy.

A paper’s employees are paid to know the English language, but in further illustration of how the industry and the language itself are being degraded, the little word “only” is far too often misplaced.

A general rule of grammar is a modifier should be placed as close as possible to the modifiee.

The convicted killer was not “only” serving. While he was serving he was doing lots of other things, including breathing air that could have better served someone else, and he was eating taxpayer food that could have better fed someone else.

No, what the reporter – and/or editor – should have said was “… after serving only 30 percent of his sentence.”

It is that fraction of his sentence that is deserving of a speaker’s or writer’s or victim's relative's ire, not the serving.

Finally, a philosophical point that brings us back to author Niven’s phrase: In Tennessee, likely in the entire United States, probably in the entire world, there is no such thing as a “justice system.”

What does exist, what is so often mis-called a “justice system” is in actuality a legal system. It is a process and perhaps a system, though maybe it is using that term rather loosely, of laws, of trials and punishments.

Justice, though, requires a redress, a returning to balance. Restitution would be justice. (And that of course asks another question: How does one provide restitution in a case of murder, or even of accidental killing? Author Barry Longyear has attempted to answer that question. He too writes SF, science fiction or, better, speculative fiction.)

The front page is not the place, perhaps, to discuss the question of justice, but front-page articles such as this one certainly do demonstrate the need for such discussion.

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