Last week's Green Lantern Corps #8, written Pete Tomasi and illustrated by Fernando Pasarin and Scott Hanna, featured an interesting discussion among the Alpha Lanterns regarding what to do about John Stewart in light of his killings of a fellow Green Lantern who seemed close to revealing Corps secrets under torture by the Keepers.
This exchange raises terrific questions about the nature of criminal justice as well as the role of the Alpha Lanterns in particular. From Boodikka's comment that "our duty is to be impartial and render justice," it sounds like the Alphas are more than just police. As usually understood, police do not "render justice" but merely play a role in it by investigating and apprehending suspects--an important role, of course, but not quite "rendering justice." So let's assume Boodikka was getting ahead of herself, and continue to understand the Alphas as the internal affairs division of the Corps.
The more interesting issue here is about the proper role of incidental consequences to the execution of justice, even at the level of arrest and arraignment. There seems to be no question among the Alphas regarding what Stewart did; the only question is whether to arrest him for it (and presumably transmit him to the Guardians for "trial," as they did with Laira before the relaunch). Boodikka and Relok Hag take the position that they must arrest Stewart no matter what the consequences, especially those due to "emotion," in order to serve justice. Green Man and Varix, on the other hand, urge consideration of the broader consequences, particularly those that impact their ability to enforce justice in the future.
The first position has clear appeal: the Alphas have good reason to believe John Stewart committed a crime against the Corps, and he should be brought in for future questioning. Arresting him should imply nothing about his guilt (though the Alphas have grounds for reasonable suspicion), and the Guardians will pronounce judgment at trial. But the second position is more inclusive: it doesn't deny the importance of arresting suspected wrongdoers, but it admits other factors relevant to the decision whether and how to do it. Stewart is a leader in the Corps, widely admired and respected by his fellow Lanterns as a pillor of honor. Bursting into a crowded room to arrest Stewart (as they do at the end of the issue) is an extremely bold show of force, especially toward someone like Stewart who would likely submit himself willingly for trial. John's popularity, the moral ambiguity of his actions, and the Alphas' brashness in response make it likely that the Green Man's prediction of divisiveness will come true, and as Varix said, "the ability to enforce justice will be severely put to" the test.
Green Man and Varix are not suggesting that they don't arrest John at all, but merely that they do so in a way that preserves the Alpha's authority and whatever respect the rest of the Corps has for them. By following Boodikka and Relok Hag's hardline position (especially in the way in which they did it), the Alphas will compromise their own standing and make the pursuit of justice more difficult in the future. In other words, justice viciously served is self-defeating. Once the arrest decision is made, the Alphas should consider how best to take John into custody to make sure that they are seen as fair and--yes, Boodikka--impartial in their "rendering" of justice. This is not a compromise in the pursuit of justice, but a way to make the pursuit of justice better. Arresting John the right way will serve justice in this particular case and ensure that they will enjoy the respect and authority necessary to continue to serve justice in the future.
But what if Green Man and Varix had been suggesting that they not arrest John at all (at least not until the Guardians ordered them to)? Do the Alphas have that kind of discretion? In a sense they must--as far as we know, there have only ever been five of them at any given time! Unless the 7200 rank-and-file Lanterns are extremely well-behaved (or the potential violations that would attract the Alphas' attention are very few), the Alphas can't possibly investigate and apprehend every wrongdoer among the Corps.
In the real world on Earth, police have tremendous discretion over which crimes to address, especially regarding misdemeanors like traffic violations and littering. Even in areas with a lot of officers per capita or square mile, they can't possibly go after every wrongdoer they see, and so they must use their judgment regarding which ones are most important to spend their time and resources investigating. Of course, people who double-park are one thing, but we wouldn't like to think of police letting murderers get away. Prosecutors, however, can certainly decide to drop a case against a suspected murderer if they think their limited resources can be better used somewhere else, either because of a weak case or even community pressure (though this is obviously a dangerous and inadvisable road to take). This is a tremendous amount of power, of course, and we trust our prosecutors to use it wisely and sparingly, but given the scarcity of their resources, they cannot possible prosecute every crime that comes across their desks, and must own judgment in choosing amongst them.
The idea that the Alpha Lanterns "embody the independent thought process of a Green Lantern along with the efficient logic of the Manhunters" is extremely intriguing one to a philosopher, especially one who has interests in rationality and judgment. This issue was the first of the "Alpha War" arc, so let's hope there is more to talk about in future installments.
For more on justice and scarcity, see Michael Cahill paper's "Real World Retributivism" (Washington University Law Review 85, 2007, pp. 815-870), and my paper "Retributivism in a World of Scarcity" (from Theoretical Foundations of Law and Economics, edited by Mark D. White, Cambridge University Press, 2009, pp. 253-271). The Alpha Lanterns and the trial of Laira are discussed in two chapters in Green Lantern and Philosophy (edited by Jane Dryden and Mark D. White, Wiley, 2011): Andrew Terjesen's "Will They Let Just Anybody Join?: Testing for Moral Judgment in the Green Lantern Corps" (pp. 53-68) and my "Crying for Justice: Retributivism for Those Who Worship Evil's Might" (pp. 162-174).