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.