… The Untouchables: the part where Oscar tells Eliot Ness that he thinks they can bust Al Capone on tax evasion charges. Eliot looks at him as though he’s insane, and asks him, “Try a murderer for not paying his taxes?” Oscar tells him, “Well, it’s better than nothing.”
When people do something wrong, we want to punish them – especially if the something wrong they did was to us or to someone we love. We want revenge. We want to know that the wrongdoers will suffer something similar to the pain they caused, and we’re willing to spend a lot of time, money and energy to see that it happens.
But this can take a toll on us. We may spend all of our emotional energy trying to punish someone, inadvertently allowing that wrongdoer to hurt us again, every single day that he or she pre-occupies our thoughts. We as a society struggle with this, trying to define “justice” and strike a balance between forgiveness and revenge.
Eliot Ness was charged with stopping Al Capone from hurting people. In the end, Capone was convicted of tax evasion and sentenced to prison where he died of illness – for all intents and purposes he was stopped from hurting people. But the conversation between Oscar and Eliot highlights an important question: Is that enough? Is it enough that Capone was put away? Is that “justice”? Does it matter whether Capone was convicted of murder, since nothing can bring the murdered back to life anyway? Does it matter what reason existed on paper to put Capone in a little box for the rest of his life?
Oscar tells Eliot that “it’s better than nothing,” and he’s right. If they hadn’t prosecuted him for tax evasion, Capone would not have gone to prison at all. He would never have paid any price for the suffering he caused, and that doesn’t sound like justice by any definition.
I think Oscar is trying to show Eliot a different way to look at his mission: to focus on the outcomes. The outcome of Capone’s actions was that people got killed; the outcome of Eliot’s actions was that Capone went to jail. It isn’t just that “it’s better than nothing.” It’s that it is in fact justice – the kind that doesn’t muck itself up with revenge or forgiveness or questions. The bad guy did bad things, and the good guys put him in jail.
And that’s good enough.