If you were a witness to a crime or to one or more critical aspects of a crime, would you proactively go forth to the authorities and relate everything you knew? What if your 18 year old child was such a witness, would you tell him to say nothing and do nothing unless and until compelled by the authorities or would you encourage him immediately to relate the truth as to all he knows? The former certainly sounds like a “safe” thing to do as your child is not lying and no one has asked him for any information. In terms of morality though, “safe” is often not the best determinant and, in terms of the effective and efficient administration of justice, having a witness who is reluctant and reticent at the outset almost never leads to the optimal outcome, certainly not in a timely fashion.
So why should you ever testify and provide information to the authorities without being ordered to do so? After all, you may be dredging up uncomfortable memories. What could possibly be worth that emotional discomfort?
Most people who are not involved professionally in the justice system and have never been the victim of a serious crime or injustice (which is most of the population, thank God), often are confused as to why justice is even that important. Everyone has at least some vague notion that there should be justice in life but little serious attention is ever paid to the topic. The majority of individuals just want to “get on” with their lives, especially when, as a witness, the controversy normally doesn’t even directly involve themselves. Further possibly complicating the analysis of why so often there is inaction on the part of a witness is an unconscious feeling that the call for justice is merely a cover for vengeance and who wants to be a part of that? Without being able to clarify the importance of justice and its distinction from vengeance, many witnesses to a crime inadvertently create their own moral confusion and impede the healthy maintenance of one of the key foundations for a just society, a goal we all undoubtedly share. [We will ignore in our discussion the situation where a witness may have a genuine fear for his or her safety by coming forward, as this raises too many issues that cannot adequately be addressed in an article of this length.] Once you recognize how critical justice is for a healthy society, it should become evident that a witness must come forward with all due haste to help prevent any possible injustice.
In simple dictionary terms, justice is: “The administering of deserved punishment or reward” and “the maintenance or administration of what is just by law, as by judicial or other proceedings” [Random House Webster’s unabridged dictionary, Second Edition, 2001]. Another definition is as follows: “The quality or characteristic of being just, impartial, or fair, FAIRNESS, INTEGRITY, HONESTY” and “conformity to such principle or ideal, RIGHTEOUSNESS” and “conformity to truth, fact, or reason, CORRECTNESS, RIGHTFULNESS” [Webster’s Third New International Dictionary of the English Language Unabridged, 2002]. The first focuses on the proper unbiased administration of the law, which certainly includes deserved punishment, while the other focuses on the moral component necessary for society to grant the Court and its officers the authority to carry out the entire system of justice.
According to Jewish tradition, the proper administration of justice is so critical that God’s one and only positive commandment he gave to every single human being, Jew and Gentile, is to create and maintain an effective system of justice. That’s it. That is the only positive commandment God gave to each one of us. You might have thought the one positive commandment God gave every person on the earth would be something like, “Love your neighbor as yourself” (Leviticus 19:18) but you would be wrong. That’s how important justice is and that’s why coming forth proactively with relevant testimony is always so critical.
The Babylonian Talmud says in Tractate Pesachim (113b), “There are three whom the Holy One, Blessed is He, hates: . . . one who knows testimony affecting his friend, but does not testify on his behalf . . .” which includes providing testimony without being asked. And in the classic text written many centuries ago, Sefer HaChinuch (The Book of Mitzvot [Commandments]; literally the Book of Education), regarding Mitzvah (Commandment) #122, The Obligation Regarding Testimony (derived from Leviticus 5:1), it says : “. . . But in cases of capital law, and in the situation of testimony regarding other Torah prohibitions, such as if one saw someone violate a prohibition, and similarly with regard to testimony pertaining to capital offenses, such as if one saw someone kill his fellow . . . in all these situations a person is obligated to come forth on his own and to relate the testimony before the Court in order to purge evil and to distance people from sin, even if he was not asked to testify.” Sefer HaChinuch goes on to say, “Among the underlying purposes of the mitzvah is that the obligation to testify is critical because this mitzvah contains great benefit to mankind; there is no need to elaborate on the benefits as the matter is obvious to all who can see the sun.”
I think by now it should be clear how vital justice is for each one of us, regardless of how much emotional reluctance we may have. We all must come forward promptly when we witness a crime; our inner conscience should compel each one of us to provide to the proper authorities with alacrity all the information we have and thereby help appropriately resolve the situation if possible–perhaps even prevent an injustice–if we are ever a witness to an action or inaction that could rise to the level of a crime.
But a lingering question sometimes lurks beneath the surface that might still impede proper action: is justice different from vengeance? We know that justice is proper and vengeance isn’t but how do we know when the situation is proper? In an article from Psychology Today, written by Leon F. Seltzer, Ph.D., and posted on February 6, 2014, it says (greatly excerpted): “1-Revenge is predominantly emotional; justice is primarily rational . . . 2-Revenge is, by nature, personal; justice is impersonal, impartial, and both a social and legal phenomenon. . . 3-Revenge is an act of vindictiveness; justice, of vindication. . . 4-Revenge is about cycles; justice is about closure. . . 5-Revenge is about retaliation; justice is about restoring balance. . .”
Parents who tell their children or friends or themselves that it is better to not get involved unless compelled are engaging in highly self-destructive behavior and are promoting a moral turpitude of the most base sort—pretending that not coming forward is somehow beneficial and/or won’t cause great harm to many individuals and institutions. If you want to save the world and save your own world, including your own inner world and your own world in the hereafter, when you see something, say something. The sooner the better.