The Good Detective (2020) Justice

*** Beware of spoilers for Episodes 1-14 ***

What is justice? According to the Merriam-Webster, an online dictionary that I frequently use, justice is "the maintenance or administration of what is just especially by the impartial adjustment of conflicting claims or the assignment of merited rewards or punishments". Cambridge Dictionary says it's "fairness in the way people are dealt with". Macmillan Dictionary states that it is "the treatment of people that is fair and morally right."

So why do I obsess over the defintion? Aside from the fact that I enjoy the process of thinking through these things, it's important to begin a discussion of an abstraction with a common starting point. Clearly the vast majority of us operate under the assumption that "justice", in every sense of the word, is attainable or should be achievable to some degree. What those definitions that I cited share is an assumption that a standard called "fairness" or impartiality exists and if it doesn't, it should be by legal imposition. Furthermore, justice as an ideal is a virtuous and desirable outcome.

I say this because there has been a lot of talk about justice in recent times that has many of us scratching our heads because obviously there are some sharp disagreements over what that looks like. As the word "justice" gets bandied around in contemporary society, it is increasingly becoming a justification for all kinds of behaviour that defy the primacy of the rule of law. The ideal and the goal (justice) has become an end that justifies the means.

While I don't want to get too political or philosophical about it, what we think about justice actually matters. It's certainly vital in understanding how this drama sees itself. This isn't the first drama in which an innocent person conveniently takes the fall for something they didn't do... becomes the scapegoat... or the proverbial sacrificial lamb for an interconnected web of agendas. However, what's fascinating in this drama is that we have a series of competing claims for justice being made. Clashes are bound to occur and it seems that the one that has the most power wins. So justice, it seems to me isn't about the rule of law but the use of power to advance a particular cause. In the words of the vernacular... "might is right". For example it seems to many if not most that Lee Dae-chul being executed is a terrible miscarriage of justice. Aside from the fact that the man himself protests his innocence and emerging evidence seems to be in his favour, there are others who disbelieved his claim. But there are others like Yoo Jeong-seok, editor-in-chief of Jeonghan Daily, who claim their right to justice while apparently denying the right of others (Lee Dae-chul in this instance) to justice.

In recent episodes we find out that many years earlier Yoo Jeong-seok lost his older sister when she committed suicide after being raped and tortured by a crooked cop, Jo Sung-gi. Apparently the offender got off with a slap on the wrist. Five years before when Oh Jang-tae killed the art student, Yoon Ji-sun, Yoo Jeong-seok had tracked down the ex-cop who was impersonating a pastor of a church, served the offender his brand of "justice", using his experience as a crime scene journalist to cover up his misdeed. It is unclear at this point of if he killed Detective Jang Jin-su although that certainly would explain his eagerness to see Lee Dae-chul executed for the crimes of killing both the art student and Jang Jin-su.

Superintendent Moon believed that Lee Dae-chul was guilty so he tampered with evidence for the art student's death to get the result he thought was warranted. He too made a claim that he was acting on behalf of justice. He fabricated evidence because he thought it was the right thing to do to ensure the guilty party got what he deserved. It was a subjective judgment and he manipulated evidence to fit the narrative that he had settled in his own mind regarding Lee Dae-chul's guilt. He failed to maintain objectivity because a beloved colleague had been killed in the line of duty. He may have had the right intentions of wanting justice for Jang Jin-su but his inability to be dispassionate caused another man to die unjustly. In doing so, he also led others astray and compromised the integrity of the police as a result. When one does the wrong thing, cover-up then becomes the default position because instead of owning up to the misdeed, the tendency is try to get away with what is unlawful as much as possible.

In both instances having power and competing claims of wanting justice turns out to be gravely tragic. Having power can corrupt well-intentioned people quickly. Power may expedite justice on some level but the law of unintended consequences means that things seldom end well when the process is side-stepped. My belief is that if Yoo Jeong-seok was so convinced of his position, why didn't he face the music and give himself up? That's my question to him. Did he not have the courage of his convictions? Or perhaps he believed that just as Oh Seung-gi could get off lightly, he had the power to play the system to his advantage. He must have thought he was justified in doing what he did that he did not consider himself guilty. From my perspective, Yoo Jeong-seok becomes the monster he believed he had slain.

It is true that the judicial system is an imperfect one. This is a broken and fallen world after all. Things fall through the cracks and obviously guilty people get away with murder for a whole range of reasons. Politics being a major factor. But when individuals place themselves above the law to gain justice, however well-intentioned, there are serious ramifications. Worse still innocent bystanders get swept into the net. Yoo Jeong-seok and Superintendent Moon might have thought their causes were righteous but taking matters into their own hands and then denying culpability left a girl orphaned, having to live off the streets on her own. What's worse, as far as the community is concerned, our institutions become compromised. The community is all the poorer for individuals putting themselves above the law. No one should be above the law because this is how the rot starts. Yoo Jeong-seok and Superintendent Moon compromised their respective organizations and the long-term consequences play themselves out.

When Woo Bong-sik said about Moon Sang Beom as he left his the station's premises, "We kicked him out of his house. I don't know what's right or wrong anymore." It is a telling statement. Superintendent. Moon was reaping what he had sown even if he had repented. There would be no reason to kick him out of his position if he had done the right thing all the way through." Perhaps bribery is seen to be a lesser evil. But lesser evil can lead to greater ones. Moon Sang Beom acknowledges it himself. There is no rest for the wicked.

What the show demonstrates though is that even when judicial justice falls down or falls short, natural justice is still act work in the background.