May 032011

What does justice look like? It’s a question I’ve been asking myself over the past few days, in the wake of the startling news of Osama bin Laden’s death. Responses have been flooding the internet as various people weigh in, many of them admitting a certain amount of relief and gladness, still others refusing to rejoice in the death of another human being, even an enemy. There’s been gloating and congratulations, praise for the Troops and grudging admiration offered to Obama even by his staunchest opponents and detractors. (And there’s been snark, too, as faux-news outlets announce that the 2012 presidential election has been canceled in light of overwhelming bipartisan support, while some ask if the moral of bin Laden’s death is that “we only like a black guy when he kills a brown guy”.)

Has justice been done? I’m not sure. When I turn a reflective eye on my own reactions, I have to admit that I feel very little more than mild surprise. I don’t feel relieved or happy about the news, but nor do I feel particularly sorrowful. I might even describe my reaction as curiosity, albeit a wincing, hesitant kind, that leaves me wondering, “What next?” After a decade of using bin Laden and the threat he represented as the raison d’être for so much of U.S. war-mongering and justifications for our violent, heavy-handed foreign policy — after three on-going wars, thousands dead, millions of civilians turned overnight into refugees — I wonder if the death of a single man can do much of anything to restore balance and see justice done. It seems to me strange to believe that the death of one person could somehow satisfy the demands of justice, if the thousands dead in Iraq and Afghanistan could not. And if those deaths were not for the sake of justice, then what is it we’ve been doing? What have we done?

The news leaves me only with more questions. What will the ramifications be for our involvement in the Middle East? Will we finally end these idiotic wars, or will they continue to drag on indefinitely? Would it have been better to capture bin Laden alive and bring him to trial, or would such a trial have been merely a mockery of justice, a foregone conclusion? Is it really a blow to bin Laden’s “street cred” and claim to martyrdom that he was found living in a mansion in Pakistan, or was it only ever Americans who needed to believe he was living desperate and isolated in a desert cave somewhere? Will this become just one more excuse to continue the U.S. policy of torture and human rights violations in the name of national security? And who will be the next boogie man, the next evil-doer public enemy?

Because there will be one. The United States has a history of forming ill-advised and unethical alliances that come back to haunt us — Russia against Hitler, Saddam Hussein against Iran, bin Laden (CIA trained, let’s not forget) against Russia… Even now, we’re sending military aid and support to rebels in Libya we know next to nothing about, while continuing to prop up dictators in strategic locations all over the world. Celebrating bin Laden’s death seems like little more than rejoicing that we’ve managed to sever one of our own gangrene limbs before the infection could spread.

But even that rejoicing may be too hasty. Sitting in a coffee shop this morning, I listen to local red-blooded Americans talking amiably about how they shouldn’t have let the women and children out alive — they should have just bombed the whole place, taking out everyone in the compound along with bin Laden. After all, these patriots reason, they were there, they were involved, they were witnesses and accomplices. Surely, guilt by association should apply, and they deserve to die. They joke about it like it were a football game. But it’s that same logic that al-Qaida and others use to justify killing American civilians — no one is innocent when they benefit from a corrupt, tyrannical system, no one can escape righteous justice when it comes, there is no such thing as an “innocent” bystander, you’re either with us or against us.

This is not justice. It’s barely even revenge, so much as it is reveling in the easy violence of the victorious and powerful. How could there possibly be justice for such death? How can we imagine we can weigh deaths against one another and come out even?

What does justice look like? Perhaps to some justice is the opposite of mercy, but that seems to me to be too entrenched in black-and-white dualism. Justice is not defined solely by retribution and punishment, but by restored relationship and mutual healing. If it is to have a purpose beyond emotional indulgence of the powerful taking revenge on the weak who have wronged them, the purpose of retribution must be restorative at its core. Justice is done when those who have suffered have the chance to heal, and those who have done violence or harm have the chance to atone — to be “at one” with their victims in experiencing the full nature of their violation and the devastation it has caused.

There is no justice in death. Justice rests not in our ability to make others suffer as we have, but in our capacity to grieve and to heal from the violence of the past. Justice rests not in the destruction of those who have wronged or threatened us, but in the reconciliation that will prevent them from doing it again, not through force of arms but through understanding and mutual respect.

Has justice been done, now that bin Laden is dead? The threat of extremism still looms large, with plenty of others poised and ready to take his place. Do we really expect that we can make ourselves safe and build our peace on the graves of our enemies? Do we really think we can keep up these wars forever, stamping out terrorists one by one, without ever redressing the underlying imbalances and abuses that define our relationship with the rest of the world? The death of a single man pales in comparison to the on-going work that real and lasting justice demands.

  33 Responses to “What Does Justice Look Like?”

  1. [...] my latest post over at Pagan+Politics, I ramble on a bit about my reaction to the news of Osama bin Laden’s [...]

  2. I’ll tell ya what justice looks like, just as soon as the President releases the photos of the bastard’s corpse being dumped into the ocean. Good riddance to bad rubbish. The world is a better place without him.

    • What Lori said. Well, except I want to see the video of him being shot through the left eye and then the heart. Also, the whole “burial at sea” thing doesn’t sit too well with me, since apparently there was a genuine effort made to give bin Laden a “traditional Islamic burial”. But I was under the impression that Islam is a religion of peace and, therefore, Osama bin Laden should be, of all creatures on this planet, most undeserving of a “traditional Islamic burial”.

      We shouldn’t demonize people. But we also shouldn’t humanize demons. Just because it has two legs doesn’t automatically make it human.

      • I liked they dumped him in the ocean. Fish need food ;) The thought of his remains settling at the bottom of the sea, being picked at by deep sea crabs and freaky tube worms like ya see on National Geographic, is very fitting I’d say. And besides, it’s better there’s no place for his nutjob followers to hold up a shrine for him.

        • I just read on CNN that the White House will NOT be releasing photo’s. I’m disappointed, to say the least (the very least). As much as I want to believe that the news is genuine, everything inside me is screaming “re-election scheme”. Nothing about this event is sitting well with me.

          • If bin Laden wasn’t really dead then he would have released a tape the day after calling out Obama for making things up. The tape from the assault and the reaction of the Pakistani government further confirm the official story is pretty close to the truth.

            What reason would Obama have for faking bin Laden’s death if it could be easily disproven? If any President did something like that and was caught they would be out of office so fast they wouldn’t know what hit them. It is too politically risky to pull a stunt like that and hope it pays off.

  3. I have been asking myself many of the same questions you list in the second and third paragraphs above, and while I don’t have a lot of definitive answers, I have come to two conclusions… that the easy dehumanization of even a man like bin Laden has a negative impact on all of us in the end; and that, nevertheless, I can’t be sorry he’s dead.

  4. “I’m concerned about a better world. I’m concerned about justice; I’m concerned about brotherhood; I’m concerned about truth. And when one is concerned about that, he can never advocate violence. For through violence you may murder a murderer, but you can’t murder murder. Through violence you may murder a liar, but you can’t establish truth. Through violence you may murder a hater, but you can’t murder hate through violence. Darkness cannot put out darkness; only light can do that.”

    - Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

  5. - from the OP:

    “Do we really think we can keep up these wars forever, stamping out terrorists one by one, without ever redressing the underlying imbalances and abuses that define our relationship with the rest of the world?”

    Exactly, exactly.

    Events like this always bring out the flag-waving, gleeful and vengeful Americans; but I can never fail to be reminded that these people are our enemies through our own doings in the ME since at least the turn of the 20th century. It always disturbs me that so few seem to be aware of our own role in creating people like Bin Laden, and even those that are aware of it seem to think we are perfectly justified in invading others countries, funding wars, arming rebels (whomever may have that particular title on any particular week), installing and supporting despots – it’s been endless, and we need to stop.

  6. You don’t hate the rabid dog for being rabid, you put it down, quickly and dispassionately (and with mercy and compassion, if possible) to protect yourself and others.

    Am I glad he is dead? No, I wish that they had captured him and brought him to trial. Without that, Revenge was served, but I do not think that Justice was.

    I think that it is a good thing that he is dead, but I don’t think that it changes anything, and will only galvanize those who follow him.

    The best word that I can describe my feelings right now is…satisfied. He has paid for the lives he caused to be ended with his own. Will that change anything, or bring back those who have died? Of course not, but hopefully it brings some closure to those who need it.

    • It makes sense to distinguish justice from vengeance when there is an effective rule of law to substitute the former for the latter. In the international realm, especially dealing with terrorism, there is no such rule of law, and trying to distinguish them is a word game.

      • My thought on it is that the point of distinction is passion. Justice is dispassionate, cold, and rational. Vengeance is passionate, hot, and visceral.

        Judging by the celebrations (esp. those at West Point), it was Revenge that was served.

        • It seems to me that this action was nothing if not rational, as well as professional, whose attributes include dispassion and coldness whilst killing.

      • “It makes sense to distinguish justice from vengeance when there is an effective rule of law to substitute the former for the latter. In the international realm, especially dealing with terrorism, there is no such rule of law, and trying to distinguish them is a word game.”


        Actually, there’s something called International Humanitarian Law, which deals with just these issues. Here’s some information on it:

        What is International Humanitarian Law?
        IHL and Terrorism FAQ

        • Alsion, a theory of effective force of law is not force of law. International relations are still very close to anarchic, with a patina of order provided by a UN that has many good deeds (which I fully support) but no teeth.

          • I’m sorry, Baruch. I thought you were claiming that there was no consensus on the international level distinguishing justice from vengeance – but since there most definitely is, I wanted to point that out.

            The issue of whether or not such consensus is enforceable, especially in the face of a consistent failure on the part of the U.S. to uphold or abide by international consensus on standards of humanitarian law, is something entirely different. Unless you’re seriously suggesting that ethical standards are defined solely by force of arms (i.e. “might makes right”)?

  7. “I who had never been a soldier, who had never fought in a battle, who had never fired a gun at an enemy, had been given the task of starting an army. It would be a daunting task for a veteran general much less a military novice. The name of this organization was Umkhonto we Sizwe (The Spear of the Nation)–or MK for short. The symbol of the spear was chosen because with this simple weapon Africans had resisted the incursions of whites for centuries …. I began the only way I knew how, by reading and talking to experts. What I wanted to find out were the fundamental principles for starting a revolution. I discovered that there was a great deal of writing on this very subject, and I made my way through the available literature on armed warfare and in particular guerilla warfare.”
    Nelson Mandela, “Long Walk to Freedom”, Chapter 42

  8. I wonder if justice is the most worthy thing to be seeking at this point in the ruinous dance of our mad world. Surely, I cannot condemn anyone whose lives were touched by the violence of September 11th for feeling satisfaction at the death of the mastermind behind that violence. Perhaps it is just, but perhaps justice doesn’t do anyone any good in the long run. I am more interested in what will help us as a species lift up our heads from the morass of war, poverty, ignorance and fear we find ourselves in.

    My particular religious view asks “what is the long-term effect on the whole system of life around me?” Viewed in this light, the death of one man, no matter how richly deserved, does not advance the cause of recognizing the bindings that tie us all together. It does not strengthen our joy in life and the recognition that others have that joy as their birthright as much as I do.

    I find myself wondering what could have been, had the money, drive and intellect of this remarkable man been turned to the benefit of his fellow Arabs and/or the world in general. What a sad thing that we must contemplate his death and doubt that there is a tragedy here. He bears responsibility for that tragedy, and his death may be fitting and proper. But I mourn the loss of vital energy to the cause of division and hatred.

    So I offer a prayer to my gods that I may be a light to others and a force to keep life acting in the service of life. I pray that I see this light in myself and remember it when I am in the throes of even the most just passion, so that it may fuel me to shine still brighter, reinforced by my own anger and sorrow.

  9. I wouldn’t be a great follower of any religion but I am intrigued by all. The 1 thing I have noticed about all this is…. There are very few Christian, Jewish, Islamic and all the rest followers out there! 1 sin is as bad as the rest, Murdering a murderer doesn’t make everything alright, Rejoicing the murder is discusting, The Death of any man be he evil or good should not be rejoiced!
    Does anyone out there think for the Man or Men who fired the shots? Will They live in a Personal Hell? Will They and Their Families Suffer the Depression and Nightmares of what’s to come??….. Their are very few men who live a normal life after killing another Human Being.
    Look at the percentage of Soldiers who have come home from war and their lives and minds fallen apart over shooting and killing whilst defending their own lives!
    Obviously Osama Bin Laden was not the nicest of men in Our eyes but like all he had his own beliefs. These beliefs seemed twisted and sick to the majority of Us but then again other Religions/Cultures/Creeds possibly seemed equally as twisted to him.
    Everyone is intitled to their own personal beliefs and mine are that Some say He was the Devil, I don’t recall that in any Ancient Books or Scripture that the “Holy One” ever said Murder the Devil and rejoice.

    Does anybody out there wonder, Osama Bin Laden has been quiet for yrs and that maybe whilst he was alive that the world was actually a safer place???
    He was the Head of Al Qaeda, Who will replace him? I firmly believe ” Better the Divil You Know than the Divil You don’t know”.
    I think people are wrong to rejoice. Our world isn’t a safer place! If the people who read this are Religious, read Your Bible, Qur’an or Literature and and embrass Your life and Family, Live your Own Life the way Your Religion expects You too and have respect for all other beliefs! If yOur not Religious,The only way to make the most of your life is to respect others, care and help those whose need help.
    All this hate makes Our World a darker place.

    Get on with your own lives and make the most of what you have, Don’t rejoice in another mans misery… Family and Children who are toatally inocent have lost a member of their Family and what he was to the Outside World doesn’t mean He was the same to his loved ones. Media says he Fathered between 12 and 26 Children. Have respect For them as they did not ask for any of this.

    “I mourn the loss of thousands of precious lives, but I will not rejoice in the death of one, not even an enemy. Returning hate for hate multiplies hate, adding deeper darkness to a night already devoid of stars. Darkness cannot drive out darkness, only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate, only love can do that.” Martin Luther King Jr

  10. At the Bin Laden Afterlife Party I am a wallflower. I sorta don’t want to be there, and I sure don’t feel much like dancing.

  11. I did not dance in the streets or shout gleefully from rooftops. Instead, I found it to be one of the lowest points in American Politics in my lifetime.

    That’s not to say I think bin Laden was a great man. Certainly not. Seemingly he caused the death of thousands and disrupted the lives of millions. His actions directly affect my life negatively: since the economy has been broken I have not been able to find sustainable, consistent work. But still I don’t think he should have been shot in the face and the heart then dumped overboard a ship. Letting him be buried according to Muslim law by his family would’ve been a better end I think. (How would the US like it if George Washington was shot in the face and the heart by the British then dumped overboard a ship “in accordance with Christian laws”? Not too well. While we may regard Washington as a hero he was a terrorist to the British government).

    Violence begets violence and now I am worried about the aftermath. I do not want more violence in the Middle East or the world because Obama took it upon himself (with the counsel of military leaders) to execute another human being, no matter how awful and evil that human being was.

    Justice was not served. Revenge was. And it makes my heart quiver and quake for the backlash that will come.

  12. This poses an interesting question as to what justice is. I’d say that while I would have preferred for bin Laden to be taken alive so he could stand trial and rot in a cell for the rest of his life I’m not too fussed that SEAL Team Six ended him. Bin Laden was not a man who was going to be taken alive if he could do anything about it, I have no doubt that if we hadn’t killed him he would have taken himself out rather than be taken captive.

    I have more thoughts on how this impacts the world but I’ll address that in a separate entry, don’t want to go too far from the main point. My hope is that we can bury the security state that sprung up following 9/11 with bin Laden. If his death was truly in the name of justice for the victims then we should honor their memory by ending our flirtations with authoritarian structures and cowboy counterterrorism. If we truly wish for this act to be one of justice then we should use this moment for a new birth of freedom in America ending our unnecessary wars abroad and the ineffective infringements on civil liberties at home.

    • “This poses an interesting question as to what justice is.”


      Yes, I think it definitely does. While I don’t have definite answers, it’s been a question I’ve been mulling over for literally years now (gosh – I guess it’s been almost a decade, since I first began studying the philosophies of ethics and justice in college as a direct result of the 9/11 attack). I have my own opinions on it, as I’ve suggested here to some extent, but it really deserves a fuller treatment, with a lot of voices contributing. Maybe in the future we could organize such a conversation here on this blog…

      ” If his death was truly in the name of justice for the victims then we should honor their memory by ending our flirtations with authoritarian structures and cowboy counterterrorism.”

      Definitely. Many of them have said as much in the statement released by the September 11th Families for Peaceful Tomorrows (.pdf).

      • gosh – I guess it’s been almost a decade, since I first began studying the philosophies of ethics and justice in college as a direct result of the 9/11 attack

        Funny you mention that, the attack on the World Trade Center was what pushed me to be politically active in the first place (I wasn’t out of high school yet, hard to believe now that he’s actually dead).

        Maybe in the future we could organize such a conversation here on this blog…

        Total agreement, that would be awesome! Bin Laden’s death opens up a lot of cans of worms that deserve to be more thoroughly examined especially from a Pagan perspective.

        • Looks like Jeff is already on the case! ;) If you have a response or further reflections as well, I think it’d be excellent if you shared them.

          I wish that other folks like Cara, Nick or Sebastian were still posting. We need more voices than just the three of us.

  13. [...] What Does Justice Look Like?: now that Osama bin Laden has been killed, has justice been done? [...]