Monday, May 2, 2011
Bin Laden's Justice, and Ours
“Justice has been done,” President Obama declared, as he announced that US forces in Pakistan had killed Osama bin Laden. Yes, it has, but as Americans wave flags and chant “USA”, blast the bagpipes, and sing the Star Spangled Banner, let’s not forget that this is retributive justice, volatile stuff. An eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth. The same kind of justice that inspires young men to rise up and smash airplanes into skyscrapers in retribution for perceived insults to their honor.
In the news reports I’ve read so far, the only explicit mention of honor is in a quote from bin Laden. Speaking to Americans via ABC news in the late 1990s, he said “This is my message to the American people: to look for a serious government that looks out for their interests and does not attack others, their lands, or their honor”. Pretty good advice, actually, if you disregard the anti-Semitic diatribe that precedes it, and the advice that we hold our government to account for our real interests is not far from what progressive liberals like Paul Krugman are asking for. The mention of honor, though, takes us out of post-Enlightenment liberal politics into terrain much older, and murkier, and problematic.
President Obama, in his announcement to the nation, made no direct mention of honor. He spoke of family (the empty chairs around the dinner table), of pluralism (let this not divide our country), of professionalism (“work” came up over and over as he spoke of the military), of human dignity. These are comfortable modern ideals, in distinct contrast to the ideals that motivated the Greeks to sack Troy, motivated the Romans to sack Europe, the Crusaders to sack Constantinople, and so forth, right up to us and Al Qaeda. Eventually, Obama tied bin Laden’s death to the story of American Exceptionalism (we can do anything we set out to do), and tied that story to “liberty and justice for all”. Wise rhetorical choices, since these are ideals that – if they really did motivate all of us, at the voting booth as well as when we listen to lofty speeches – might lead to a different sort of justice. The sort of justice that recognizes the plight of the weak, that contests privilege and greed, that demands equal treatment under the law, that demands honesty and professionalism of politicians and bankers, that supports peace.
The justice done to bin Laden is not that sort of justice.
I’m not saying that bin Laden shouldn’t have been killed, or that retributive justice is inappropriate in this circumstance. Rather, that we should keep our kinds of justice straight. The honor of the United States has been restored, and Americans are relieved. But when you restore your own honor at someone else’s expense (which is inevitably how, once your honor has been slighted, you have to restore it – that’s how avenging one’s honor works), the framework remains “might makes right”, which is also the logic that supports street gangs, honor killings of girls and women, and international terrorism. Retribution doesn’t relieve us from danger. Only redefining what’s truly honorable – from the death of our enemies to a different kind of justice – will do that.