Grief and its Outlets

In criminal trials, the victim usually matters for two (evidential) reasons. First, he can testify to what he saw the defendant actually do. Second, if and only if the defendant is found guilty, in some jurisdictions, the judge can hear a “victim impact statement,” where the victim explains how the crime has changed his life, and how (if at all) the judge should take that into account during sentencing.

This statement only comes at sentencing because we recognize that, while grief is valid and important, it doesn’t and shouldn’t compel, on its own, any real-world conclusions. We can legitimize grief, without letting it control our lives.

From the first day of the “Ground Zero mosque” controvesy, the Cordoba House’s opponents, both conservative and liberal, have argued to the contrary, insisting that a decent respect for the families of 9/11 victims, and anyone affected by the tragedy, compels the conclusion that we should keep Muslims out of the Financial District.  See, e.g., ex-governor Palin (note, too, that the tweet was from a Blackberry platform, suggesting it was her and not a staffer).

But like the criminal justice system, we need to realize that legitimizing grief, and legitimizing its outlets, are two different things. What Palin and company are arguing for isn’t “respect” for grief, but its weaponization against a minority that had nothing to do with the attacks. We can’t elide the huge inferential leap between the premise, “some emotional scars remain,” and the conclusion, “therefore Muslims need to back off.” In a pluralistic society, that kind of leap — one that goes well beyond political correctness, and entrenches dangerous prejudices — isn’t one we’re really privileged to make.



  1. “In criminal trials, the victim usually matters for two (evidential) reasons. ”

    Sorry to pick a legal bone, but rules of evidence are a professional interest for me. The victim also matters (in particular in rape cases) for purposes of character testimony, and character of the victim is admissible in certain situations under FRE. I will not go into state rules, but in NY they are similar.

    As to the rest of the post, i agree. Grief is a complex emotion and dealing with the grieving requires certain tact. However, sympathizing with the grieving is not the same as unconditionally agreeing with the reasoning tainted by that emotion, especially when that grief is used as a political and ideological tool by those with no direct connection to the families of the victims.

  2. This is true: I was leaving out that part :)

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