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.


Sarah Stitzlein said...

Thanks for posting these interesting thoughts on retributive justice, Amy. These are good thoughts for me to chew over today.

Leonard Waks said...

You are so right on. This is by far the most intelligent, thoughtful and far-reaching comment I have heard on this day of collective back-patting.

michael s. katz said...

Amy: beautifully stated and well argued. This is a form of retributive justice, and one that will reinforce Bin Laden's status as a martyr who, if and when he died, wanted to be killed by imperialist American forces for that was the basis for his argument that Americans were threatening muslim lands. Having said that, it is nice to see something happen that makes us transcend the vitriolic silliness that characterizes American politics today.

Michael Diamond said...

Well-said, Amy. The killing of bin Laden will encourage continuing use of drone attacks, assassinations from the air with collateral damage. President Obama missed an opportunity to abide by the Nuremberg principles. He's leading us away from accepting the jurisdiction of the International Criminal Court. Acceptance of the ICC would be the best way to keep "justice straight," as you so well expressed it.

Ken said...

When I first heard the news about bin Laden getting killed, I was quite relieved, and surprised. As a matter of fact, almost all people are overjoyed up to this date after the news came out. But glorifying the death of a single person, we are no different from the terrorists themselves who killed nearly 3000 people. I agree with your standpoint about retributive justice, like what we always believe, justice is justice no more if it emanates from retribution and such. What is so significant about getting joyful with someone's death when in fact we can't even bring back people's lives. Anyway, I really love the way you convey pure and straight thoughts, I guess my time has not been wasted in reading your post.