May 052011

I don’t have a lot to add to the conversation about the death of Osama bin Laden — most of my thoughts are summed up well by others — but I do want to point out something that struck me about Barack Obama’s remarks Sunday night:

Americans understand the costs of war. Yet as a country, we will never tolerate our security being threatened, nor stand idly by when our people have been killed. We will be relentless in defense of our citizens and our friends and allies. We will be true to the values that make us who we are. And on nights like this one, we can say to those families who have lost loved ones to al Qaeda’s terror: Justice has been done.

Has it? He seems quite certain, and I wonder why.

As a Christian, Obama’s personal sense of justice must presumably be founded on Christian principles — on words such as “those who live by the sword, die by the sword,” and “blessed are the peacemakers,” and “turn the other cheek,” and so on. Overall, Jesus seems to take a firm stance against all violence, even in self defense. But in his speech on accepting the Nobel Peace Prize, Obama praised the principle of the ‘just war’:

…war is justified… when certain conditions [are] met: if it is waged as a last resort or in self-defense; if the force used is proportional; and if, whenever possible, civilians are spared from violence.

The idea of ‘just war’ is most fully developed in Catholic doctrine, and has changed over time. Christians during the time of the Crusades believed that violence, even aggression, was fine, as long as it was done for a noble cause. The more limited modern theory of ‘just war’ takes an intermediate view between Jesus and the Crusaders.

But in that same speech, Obama went on to criticize the just war theory as being too impractical:

…while it’s hard to conceive of a cause more just than the defeat of the Third Reich and the Axis powers, World War II was a conflict in which the total number of civilians who died exceeded the number of soldiers who perished…

As a head of state sworn to protect and defend my nation, I cannot be guided by [the non-violent philosophies of King and Gandhi] alone. I face the world as it is, and cannot stand idle in the face of threats to the American people. For make no mistake: Evil does exist in the world. A non-violent movement could not have halted Hitler’s armies. Negotiations cannot convince al Qaeda’s leaders to lay down their arms…

The world must remember that it was not simply international institutions — not just treaties and declarations — that brought stability to a post-World War II world. Whatever mistakes we have made, the plain fact is this: The United States of America has helped underwrite global security for more than six decades with the blood of our citizens and the strength of our arms.

So if the nonviolence of Jesus, King, and Gandhi is too impractical, and the ‘just war’ theory is too idealistic, then by what is Obama guided? Does he agree with the Crusaders — that violence is justified in a good cause? Isn’t this consequentialism — that the ends, in other words, justify the means? Surely Obama would not agree to that. But that’s what “practical” means in this context, when you get right down to it. You do what you have to do to get the job done, even if you have to break a few ethical eggs.

As a druid with Zen Buddhist leanings, I don’t have a Bible writ with doctrines of peace. I know that, while the ancient druids aspired towards peace, the human world, the natural world, is not a place of cut and dried right and wrong. And so I know that in any ethical dilemma, a healthy dollop of humility and doubt is called for. We are mortal creatures of limited knowledge; we cannot see all ends, and our judgements are bound to be faulty. In fact, I think Obama struck nearer the mark when he said — in that same speech:

To say that force may sometimes be necessary… is a recognition of history; the imperfections of man and the limits of reason…. Our challenge is reconciling these two seemingly irreconcilable truths — that war is sometimes necessary, and war at some level is an expression of human folly…

For we are fallible… Even those of us with the best of intentions will at times fail to right the wrongs before us. But we do not have to think that human nature is perfect for us to still believe that the human condition can be perfected. We do not have to live in an idealized world to still reach for those ideals that will make it a better place. The non-violence practiced by men like Gandhi and King may not have been practical or possible in every circumstance, but the love that they preached — their fundamental faith in human progress — that must always be the North Star that guides us on our journey.

I think these words are wise. And so — as hundreds of thousands of civilians were killed in Iraq and Afghanistan and Pakistan — as ultimatums were issued instead of exploring every diplomatic option — as nations were invaded with overwhelming force, far disproportionate to the threat of the terrorist network — as our nation bent and broke so many of the Geneva Conventions — as the laws protecting the privacy and rights of our own citizens have been legislated away with barely any debate — but Bin Laden was, at last, caught by a single SEAL team, working from intelligence gained without torture, with no loss of civilian life — how can he say with such certainty that justice has been done?

I cannot. It makes me wonder where he thinks justice lies.

  16 Responses to “Obama’s Justice”

  1. Since the ancient druids had battle magic they were unashamed to deploy, why do you assume they strove for peace? It sounds very strange to my ears when I consider how they fought for their very existence at Mona or encouraged warriors to take up arms for cattle raids.

    As for justice when it comes to Osama bin Laden, blaming Obama for Bush’s invasions as part of your argument is a very sloppy move. Obama’s been withdrawing troops and changing their purpose for being there in an attempt to ameliorate the damage Bush did. Obama can’t be handed full blame for the PATRIOT Act, either, though by keeping it alive he’s complicit in maintaining the mistake Bush and that Congress made.

    Focusing on what Obama himself requested, instigated, and ordered would be more on point, I think. And looking at his intent to target bin Laden to get him to answer for his crimes, I think the justice picture becomes far clearer. He went for the man at the top who sent those planes into the WTC and Pentagon. Within two years, he was located within enough margin for error to check out the site. The SEALs had capture/kill orders, so if he’d cooperated, he’d be facing trial. A mass murderer and international criminal was brought down by legal means. That IS justice done as far as what bin Laden did was concerned.

    The wider injustices to civil rights, Iraq, and Afghanistan require different solutions. Bin Laden’s death/capture was not meant to fix any of those and never could.

    • The claim that the methods used by the SEALs in bringing down bin Laden were “legal” (according to International Law) is becoming increasingly debatable, as the White House’s story about the events continues to change and they back farther and farther away from the sensationalized version first reported. The most recent I heard was that few in the compound were armed, there was almost no exchange of fire and bin Laden himself was unarmed and hardly in a position to put up legitimate resistance against heavily armed and armored SEALs. It seems that while they officially had “capture or kill” orders (because it is illegal to issue kill-only orders), the “capture” had a little asterisk next to it with a footnote reading, “jk lol.”

      Regardless, I think Jeff’s larger point was that Obama’s ethical stance on war and justice raises some important questions. The speech Jeff quotes is from Obama’s acceptance speech for the Nobel Peace Prize, which gives some context to his remarks justifying war. Imagine if you were presented with an award to honor your honesty, and in your acceptance speech you waxed philosophic about the necessity and nobility of lies and deception, paying little more than lip-service to honesty as an impossible ideal. It seems reasonable that this would at the very least raise some eyebrows. That Obama took such an opportunity to justify war and violence says a lot about his priorities. Whether he is responsible for the Iraq and Afghanistan wars is hardly the issue. (In any case, while he has worked to deescalate the war in Iraq, he campaigned on promises to escalate the war in Afghanistan and followed through on those promises.)

      In general, I think it’s pretty clear that both parties – Republicans and Democrats – embrace a philosophy of consequentialism that believes “ends justify the means.” Obama’s commitment to scale back two hugely unpopular wars is little more than pragmatism (the same pragmatism that led him to enter a third war in Libya). If public sentiment were different – as it obviously is in the case of bin Laden’s death – I doubt he would have any qualms about dealing out violence in the name of justice.

    • Thanks, Lysana. These are good points; but I still find it odd that Obama is so certain that justice has been done. Even though he himself is not responsible for all that’s been done in the name of the War on Terror, I think that if you’re going to claim justice has been done, you’re implicitly claiming that it was all worthwhile and just. That’s a huge claim and, given Obama’s own words about how fallible human judgement is, not warranted at all.

      Maybe some part of justice has been satisfied, in some sense, in some way. But in the larger view, the scales are tipped far out of balance, and not in our favor.

  2. Obviously when Obama said “Justice has been done,” he was talking specifically about the killing of Osama bin Laden. Putting a mass murderer to death is Justice. How is that not obvious?

    Obama did not claim that Injustice itself had been utterly vanquished from Reality. He said one bad guy, and an especially important one, had been brought to justice. This is a true statement. There is still injustice in the Universe, but that does not make Obama’s statement that “Justice has been done” untrue.

    • It is not obvious to me at all that a killing can be made right by another killing. And it certainly doesn’t square with Obama’s ethics, at least as he stated them in his speech. So again, I wonder where he’s getting this idea of justice being done.

      • Jeff, in your opinion, how could Al Qaeda’s acts of terrorism ever be “made right”?

        Justice is not some kind of magic that makes everything right. The dead cannot be brought back to life, nor can the searing loss of those left behind ever be undone. But Osama bin Laden could be brought to justice, and he has been.

        • The question “what is justice” is exactly what I am asking here. If Jane steals money from John, then in order for justice to be done, the money must be returned. It’s pretty clear that “justice” in this case means returning the situation to what it was before.

          But if Bin Laden takes someone’s life, he can’t give it back. We cannot return the situation to what it was before. So what is justice in this case? It’s not clear to me that killing Bin Laden is “bringing him to justice.” It’s just a phrase that’s being tossed around.

          Perhaps Jane and Bin Laden deserve punishment for their crimes. But this, I think, is vengeance, not justice.

          If you are certain that killing Bin Laden is “bringing him to justice”, I’d be interested in knowing where that certainty comes from.

          • It’s not complicated. People who commit crimes are deserving of punishment. I wonder if we can agree on that? Bin Laden’s crimes are deserving of the most severe punishment, death. I don’t believe in “cruel and unusual” punishments, which excludes things like torture. I also don’t believe in revenge for its own sake, which excludes things like going after bin Laden’s family. I also don’t believe in mutilating or otherwise desecrating his body once he has been killed, because that is degrading to those who commit such an act, and it is just a pointless act of revenge.

            I cannot claim that my thinking on this subject is in any way original. The idea that murderers (let along mass murderers) should be put to death is an ancient one.

  3. The author asks whether justice has been done. I ask, would it have been just to allow Bin Laden to live? He orchestrated the death of thousands, and those actions unleashed the death of thousands more. Others talk of reconciliation and mutual respect–as if those concepts alone would magically bring everyone to the table for a great big group hug. And it’s always laid at our feet–not the terrorists’. Don’t we expect anything of them?

    I can understand the Christian concepts of turning the other cheek, of peaceful nonviolence. But there are a lot of pagans running around still loyal to those ideals. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, but it is curious. And convenient. Aren’t pagans supposed to be more nature-centered, more in tune with the great big world out there? I know it’s dangerous to draw comparisons between humans and other animals/nature but, oh, what the heck. Does nature dispense justice? Or is it a human hang-up? If someone came into your home and killed your family, would you be so quick to talk of group hugs with the killer? Animals kill each other all the time–yes, usually for food–but no, they don’t retaliate as far as I’m aware. But is this what we are to aspire to–just sit, emotionless and let it all happen? Is that human?

    Some pagans seems to entranced by abstract notions of nature fairies, kind and helpful spirits and gods/goddesses that always do what is right and just. But I wonder, is the world really like that? Is it that simple? Maybe I’m a consequentialist. I think many of us really are, deep down. We talk a good game, but I think many of us live our lives that way. Yes, it’s practical–and it keeps us alive. Is that wrong? By whose law? “God’s?” From a pagan perspective, who, pray tell, does this refer to? From my own understanding, pagan god/goddesses are some of the most consequentialist beings around! If so, are we pagans simply “all talk?” In other words, do we have the balls to truly step out and say, yes, there are times when justice offends our delicate sensibilities, when justice is frightening and unpleasant? When justice reminds us that this world is not all fairies and white lights? I think pagans have a lot to say in these circumstances because I believe that pagans are able to look at the world in a more balanced manner, to look at nature “red in tooth and claw” and still see the beauty and wonder. But if paganism has nothing to say and only retreats to the safety of cultural platitudes, then what value is it?

    • These are excellent points, and hearken back to some of the things Alison said in her recent post as well. There is a LOT to be said about it, and I’m working on a very long article (or series of articles) on it; and I look forward to your ideas and comments on that. While I agree with you that a lot of folks are consequentialist deep down, the fact remains that we are also strongly called towards ideals of forgiveness and mercy; and while nature can be selfish and nasty, it also contains a lot of altruism. You can see this very strongly in many social species, such as our closest relatives, the great apes. So these are paths to tread carefully and thoughtfully.

  4. I suppose the question comes down to one of terms. Is “justice” an individual or societal construction? Is my sense of “justice” any more privileged than yours? I happen to be opposed to capital punishment in any case as a matter of societal health. Societies aren’t very good at taking responsibility for their actions; in fact it is a characteristic of mobs and political elites both to spread the responsibility for “distasteful” actions as widely as possible.

    I am not a pacifist on a personal level, and could kill if I deemed it necessary to protect me or mine. But as an individual, I am prepared to accept the physi8cal and emotional consequences of that act, and if possible to find a way to make the lives of the family members of anyone I would slay better. That’s my own definition of justice, but I do draw a line between individual justice and societal.

    So, was the President engaged in societal justice? He would say so, certainly. I’m not sure the concept has much meaning, since it necessarily removes individual responsibility from the equation.

    Of course, Obama did make the decision that led to the Seals being there to pull the trigger, and as President, he will be held accountable for the consequences. perhaps there’s a rough justice there.

  5. Since taking office, President Obama has said several times that this administration is looking for OBL, and that they would kill him once they found him–in contrast, President Bush said 6 months after 9/11 that he didn’t care about OBL or where he was.

    “I don’t know where bin Laden is. I have no idea and really don’t care. It’s not that important. It’s not our priority.”
    - G.W. Bush, 3/13/02

    “I am truly not that concerned about him.”
    - G.W. Bush, repsonding to a question about bin Laden’s whereabouts,
    3/13/02 (The New American, 4/8/02)

    President Obama said the following about OBL during his candidacy for President:

    “And if we have Osama bin Laden in our sights and the Pakistani government is unable or unwilling to take them out, then I think that we have to act, and we will take them out.

    We will kill bin Laden. We will crush al-Qaida. That has to be our biggest national security priority.” — 7 October 2008

    And again in 2009 and 2010:

    Just before his inauguration: “My preference, obviously, will be to capture or kill him.”

    At a press conference on 10 September 2010: “Capturing or killing bin Laden and Zawahri would be extremely important to our national security.”

    As far as this Heathen is concerned, President Obama made an oath and kept it. Now if he would just keep some of his other oaths…