On Healing 9/17/2007: Learning to live with injustice

In my last column, I described how some schools deal with bullying through programs called restorative justice – programs that try to help heal the wounds wrought by bullying.

The same day the column appeared, 71-year-old William Barnes was charged with the murder of former police officer Walter T. Barclay. While committing a crime in 1966, Barnes shot Barclay, then an active patrolman, leaving him paralyzed from the waist down. He lived in that condition until Aug. 19, when he died of complications of a urinary tract infection. Barnes had already spent 15 years in prison and had been living in a halfway house at the time he was charged.

The district attorney said that for the Barclay family, “this would be justice at last.”

I doubt that.

My spinal cord injury in 1979 was not the result of a bullet, but it was the result of someone’s decision. As I was driving down the Pennsylvania Turnpike a wheel broke off a truck and crashed into my car. I later found out that the company that manufactured the wheel knew it was inferior, but put it on the road anyway.

I was furious. We sued in civil court, but I didn’t just want money. I wanted the company to suffer, and I wanted the people involved to suffer for the rest of their lives.

We won the lawsuit and initially I felt relieved and validated. But after a few weeks, I realized that nothing had really changed. Sure, with the money I could now build a wheelchair-accessible house and my family would be OK until I got back to work.

But I was still a quadriplegic, and everyone in my family suffered every day because of it. And to make matters worse, I was sure all of this had no impact on the company.

Sure, at one level there was justice. They took something from me, and the courts made them give something back. But to me, justice would have been being able to look someone in the eye and have them understand what their decision really did to me and my family. I wanted them to feel remorse – even change their behavior. To be honest, in 1983, when the lawsuit took place, I probably would have said that justice would have been if I could walk again. I would guess all of those things are equally unlikely.

Ultimately, justice is about fairness. What happened to me was unfair, but I haven’t been angry with that company for many years. I have come to understand that people who harm other people are in some respects blind to the value of life and can never appreciate what they have. Over the years, my life has become full, and for that I am grateful.

All parents have probably told their children that life isn’t fair and we all have to live with injustice. But how we live with injustice can determine the quality of our lives.

Whether William Barnes spends the rest of his life in prison or not, what happened to Walter Barclay and his family was not fair, and nothing could make it so.

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