What do we mean by "justice"?
This week’s news of the death of Osama bin Laden has provoked a deep mixture of emotions throughout the world, and for those of us in the self-defined peace and justice community, it feels there are additional layers that are especially difficult to navigate.
As someone who was born in New York City and has lived there for two extended periods, and who knew at least two people who died in the World Trade Center attacks (and who had family members who were possibly going to be in the WTC area that very day), I do have a personal and painful relationship to that tragic date.
Yet, I am among those who were immediately troubled by the concept of killing a person as a form of “justice.” I believe that bin Laden should be brought to trial, despite the horror of his crimes; while bin Laden was not a political leader in a geopolitical sense, I still found this to be a form of assassination. This question — in terms of both its legality and ethical nature — has been one initial topic of conversation and debate with family members and colleagues.
Now, as more details have emerged from the attack on his Pakistan compound, it seems that more questions are raised rather than answers being found. In the past 24 hours, statements from the White House and news investigations suggest there was little “resistance” to the Navy Seals attack, other than one person who is said to have fired shots. (Potentially the “courier” whose actions helped lead the U.S. to the site.) Bin Laden himself is now stated to have been unarmed. The initial stories of his using a woman as a “human shield” were wrong.
Perhaps more troubling that the emerging questions about the raid, however, are the responses it has evoked here at home. Cheering crowds in New York, Washington, and elsewhere, finding patriotic fervor in the death of another. Professional sports teams pushing militaristic mantras. Today, President Obama traveled to the WTC site, capitalizing on the momentum of the moment. Political leaders arguing in the efficacy of torture as a tool for information-gathering, rather than on its ethical context — we are giving credence as to whether or not it “works,” rather than recognizing it as fundamentally immoral and disgraceful. (If you agree, visit the National Religious Campaign Against Torture’s website to find talking points you can use in a letter to the editor.) And the drumbeat of American exceptionalism has been incessant this week, and promises to continue.
Most of all, as someone who has sought to work for “justice” for most of my life — for more than a quarter-century, I have been actively engaged in advocating and organizing for racial, economic, environmental, and social justice — I find the current usage of the word “justice” to be dehumanizing and problematic. In his speech on Sunday evening, May 1st, President Obama used the term at least five times: “We were also united… to bring those who committed this vicious attack to justice.” “…authorized an operation to get Osama bin Laden and bring him to justice.” “Justice has been done.” “But tonight, they feel the satisfaction of their work and the result of their pursuit of justice.” And last but not least, citing our nation’s Pledge of Allegiance, “…one nation, under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.” (Further, in Obama’s trip today to New York City, he had lunch with firefighters. “’We sat together as gentlemen around the table, celebrating getting justice,’ said Leonard Sieli, a firefighter,” reports The New York Times.)
Justice is, obviously, a word that has a range of meanings for people. Our “criminal justice” system is considered inherently unjust by many who work for racial and social equality: we see its manifestations as retributive rather than offering reconciliation. My understanding of justice is that it should be centered on how healing and wholeness are brought to communities, rather than perpetuating violence and conflict.
So, just as I finished writing this reflection, it was with surprise and appreciation that I received a message from our friends at Yes! A Journal of Positive Futures, featuring an interview of Andrea LeBlanc, one of the members of September 11th Families for Peaceful Tomorrows. I’ve been thinking a lot about the members of Peaceful Tomorrows this week — so often, the mainstream media seems to present “9/11 family victims” as a uniform group, not even considering there are those who have opposed our wars in Afghanistan, Iraq, and the like as a response to their tragic losses — and I have been in contact this week with a couple of its members. (When it was first launched in 2001, Peaceful Tomorrows was fiscally sponsored by the Fellowship of Reconciliation. FOR supported PT’s development until it gained 501c3 status.)
Brooke Jarvis’s timely conversation with LeBlanc, “I’m looking for Justice, Not Vengeance” now provides a helpful perspective on what bin Laden’s death means to others who see “justice” in a different way than our president suggests. As I read the interview, I was particularly touched to learn that LeBlanc’s husband Bob, who died in one of the planes, was a professor of cultural geography, like my own father. But it was her overall commentary that really struck home:
First of all, I think justice is found in the courtroom, not on a battlefield. Since its beginning, Peaceful Tomorrows has been working not only to end the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, but to close Guantánamo.
Yesterday, people kept saying, “Justice has been served.” I didn’t feel that way. Yes, bin Laden did a horrific, terrible thing. But I would have preferred that he be brought before a court of law. This was an assassination, and I’m afraid it will serve to inflame others, that he’ll become a martyr.
I think there’s a perception, at least in this society, that if you’re a victim, you not only deserve retribution, but you need it. To heal. There have been many instances, since 9/11, of anger directed at the things Peaceful Tomorrows’ members have said and done—for example, speaking out against the death penalty or as part of the defense of Zacarias Moussaoui. People were furious at us for doing this. You just wonder, where does this need to be so angry come from? I reject the idea that revenge is necessary, or normal, or just.
Finally, among the many other thoughtful and provocative commentaries received from within our community of allies in recent days, here are a few more I would highlight:
- Rebecca Gordon, War Times, “Bin Laden Is Dead. Can We Go Home Now?”
- War Resisters League, “Bringing Osama bin Laden to Justice?”
- RootsAction, “Bin Laden’s Death: Time to Reign in Empire”
- Kai Wright, Colorlines, “The Ability to Kill Bin Laden Does Not Make America Great”
- Kathy Kelly, Voices for Creative Nonviolence, “Beyond Retaliation”
- David Swanson, “What Osama bin Laden, Troy Davis, and You Have in Common”
For justice, and peace within and without.