Much of the contemporary literature on historic injustice considers it from the vantage point of present and future agents, their community and their needs. In the study of which this paper is a part, I begin to set the foundation for a different approach. I ask whether we can and ought to do justice to the past, not to the latter’s present effects or in the hope of garnering whatever lessons for the future that it might provide, but to that past in all its remoteness and in full recognition of its historical character. Without that orientation, phrases such as “addressing the past,” “answering historic injustice” and so on are a mere façon de parler, misnomers for conceptions and practices of doing justice that take their bearings four-square from the present and future.
In this paper, I develop the theme that one of the defining and perplexing features of doing justice to the past is the fact of absence. That absence can take a number of forms: a degradation of material evidence, the loss of eye witnesses, a fading of the urgency of answering the crime, a selectivity born of present prejudice, or the decentering of the victim from the core of legal justice. I will focus first on the distance that time and death create, and on the undermining of the absent victim’s status as an enduring subject of justice, a claimant on our doing justice, and a subject who can be harmed by our failure to answer her call for justice. I conclude by suggesting ways in which the dead remain claimants on justice.