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Look at his head noddin’

Happy belated May Day, “Loyalty Day”, and Osama Bin Laden Is Definitely Probably Dead This Time Day, readers! Mmmm, doesn’t it smell like justice in here?

OBAMA: […] We were also united in our resolve to protect our nation and to bring those who committed this vicious attack to justice. […] I determined that we had enough intelligence to take action, and authorized an operation to get Osama bin Laden and bring him to justice. […] Justice has been done. […] they feel the satisfaction of their work and the result of their pursuit of justice. […] one nation, under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.

It is worth pausing to admire Obama’s masterful rhetorical conflation here of two different conceptions of justice. One sense of “justice”, of course, has to do with courts, legal process, fair trials, and the rest. This has to be the sense invoked in Obama’s reference to the desire to bring Bin Laden to justice. In this spatial metaphor, justice is a place: implicitly, a courtroom, or at least a cell with the promise of process. (Or even, in extremis, Guantánamo Bay, still not closed, where indefinite “detention” or imprisonment is Unspeakily palliated with the expectation of some kind of tribunal.) To bring someone to justice is to put them in a place where they will be answerable for their alleged crimes. To be answerable in this sense, it helps to be alive.

But it is quite another sense of “justice” — meaning a fair result, regardless of the means by which it was achieved — that is functioning in Obama’s next use of the word: the quasi-legal judgment that justice was done. On what sorts of occasion do we actually say that justice was done? Not, I suppose, at the conclusion of a trial (when it might be claimed, instead, that justice was served); rather, after some other event, away from any courtroom, that we perceive as rightful punishment (or reward) for the sins (or virtues) of the individual under consideration. (Compare poetic justice.) The claim that justice was done appeals, then, to a kind of Old Testament or Wild West notion of just deserts. What, after all, happened between the desire to bring Bin Laden to justice and the claim that justice was done? Well, Bin Laden was killed. He was not, after all, brought to justice. Instead, justice (in its familiar guise as American bombs and bullets) was brought to him.

Even so, there is a curious interpolation of law-enforcement vocabulary in Obama’s description of the aftermath of the extra-judicial killing:

A small team of Americans carried out the operation with extraordinary courage and capability. No Americans were harmed. They took care to avoid civilian casualties. After a firefight, they killed Osama bin Laden and took custody of his body.

Let us rapidly note that “They took care to avoid civilian casualties” is not the same as “no civilians were harmed”, but as ever it’s the caring that’s important, right? Stranger is the description of grabbing Bin Laden’s corpse: they took custody of his body. Custody (guarding, supervision, care) is normally something you take of a living person, perhaps a child or a person accused of crimes, having been granted that right by a court. To say that your soldiers took custody of a dead body seems quite a strained forensic framing, particularly if you’re just going to throw it in the sea afterwards.

Does Obama’s final invocation of justice for all (I imagine, as do you, Metallica playing at deafening volume in the background) carry a connotation of persistent threat (you cannot escape American “justice” anywhere in the world) as well as celebration?

  1. 1  other Tom  May 2, 2011, 4:35 pm 

    Enough about the civilians! Who cares?
    Didn’t you pay any attention to what Obama said? No Americans were harmed.All else is dust.You might even say that the civilians were UnAmericans.

  2. 2  sw  May 2, 2011, 6:06 pm 

    I think you miss an important point, perhaps several, by quickly – perhaps with the speed of reflexes conditioned by years of acute study of political language – conflating this with other acts of violence since September 11, 2001. All acts of war involve going Old Testament on someone’s ass, and this was an act of war, like it or not. Perhaps the most difficult point to countenance is that there never could have been justice, only the insistence that there was justice – for many reasons, not the least of which was that Osama was never going to be subject to a court trial, and not the least of which is that justice, in both senses you evoke, is a formal (ritualised, symbolic, structured) response to a crime, putting it into an impossible position of answering the unanswerable. But this does not make the call on justice a charade, anymore than “unspeak” is the same as “doublespeak”. There could never have been justice, but to speak the words “justice” over that man’s watery grave is a small gesture towards justice.

  3. 3  Jeff Strabone  May 3, 2011, 4:04 am 

    I agree with SW that war is the suspension of law. In war, all killings are extrajudicial. In a narrow sense, we could say that no justice occurs in war because war suspends the rule and processes of law.

    There is another kind of justice, one that is at odds with the disinterested administration of the rule of law. The kind of justice ‘done’ to bin Laden was not, as you say, ‘served’. Justice is only served by processes of law. Where or when law is suspended, there is no service of justice.

    What is the kind of justice ‘done’ to bin Laden then? It is the justice of revenge. He killed many. And he was killed by agents acting on behalf of some of those many.

    As a New Yorker who feels a personal stake in this whole matter, I could not be happier that justice was done to bin Laden.

  4. 4  Steven  May 3, 2011, 7:07 am 


    war is the suspension of law

    A lot of people disagree, or at least have wished (through framing conventions) and promised (through signing them) the contrary. Of course, some other people notoriously argued, vigorously and for a long time, that, in a “war on terror”, absolutely anything goes.

    It was also those people who decided to frame OBL’s acts as “war” rather than “crimes” (OBL himself having “declared war” notwithstanding) in the first place.

    Obama cleverly has it both ways in his announcement: on this account, the killing was implicitly both a judicial bringing-to-account for crimes (justice1), and a warlike reprisal-assassination (justice2).

    I’m glad that you could not be happier?

  5. 5  Steven  May 3, 2011, 11:04 am 

    If this happened between rival drug gangs (oh, wait!…), the media would probably report it as an “execution-style killing”:

    As the raiding party closed in on the last unsecured room in the compound, Bin Laden, who according to the White House had no weapon, was shot dead.

    US officials say – and there is no independent verification of this fact – he was shot twice, once in the chest and once in the head.

  6. 6  Jeff Strabone  May 3, 2011, 2:52 pm 

    In saying that war is the suspension of law, I do not mean that in a war ‘anything goes’. As you rightly point out, there are indeed treaties on the laws of war which try to define permissible and impermissible conduct in war. This is why we can speak of ‘war crimes’ and ‘crimes against humanity’.

    But in war one does not allow a battlefield combatant the right to due process. Instead, one aims to kill battlefield combatants. Killing a battlefield combatant does not lead to prosecution for the killer. Once a combatant is in custody, then law resumes. A battlefield combatant can be shot on sight; a prisoner of war cannot be.

    You and I agree that under cover of the so-called ‘war on terror’ the Bush people have behaved lawlessly away from the battlefield. The ‘war on terror’ unacceptably imagines the entire planet as a battlefield. We also agree that the U.S. has not treated its prisoners of war in accordance with international treaties or its own domestic laws in the past decade. Can a nation-state be ‘at war’ with a ‘criminal gang’ like al-Qaeda? Saying yes would seem to open the door to allowing state actors to define anyone they don’t like as a party to war. On the other hand, the particular case of al-Qaeda is that of an organization with pretensions to erecting a new state (the caliphate), capturing existing states (Afghanistan), and defeating other states in war (the US). If a state could be said to be at war with an organization, al-Qaeda would be that organization.

    Was Obama ‘clever’ in having it ‘both ways’? Sure. Can I live with that? Yes, quite easily in this instance.

    Two questions for you then:
    1. How would you prefer the U.S. to have handled the matter once they knew bin Laden was where he was?
    2. Are you not glad that bin Laden is dead?

  7. 7  Steven  May 3, 2011, 3:29 pm 

    “Battlefield combatant”? Really?

  8. 8  Jeff Strabone  May 3, 2011, 3:32 pm 

    Is there some better term for a combatant on a battlefield? ‘Hostile wartime actor’? Really, I don’t understand your ‘Really‘ question.

  9. 9  Steven  May 3, 2011, 3:37 pm 

    I’m sorry; I thought you were trying to argue that it was okay to shoot an unarmed OBL in the face because he was somehow a “battlefield combatant”. Now I see that you cannot possibly have been saying that.

  10. 10  Jeff Strabone  May 3, 2011, 3:45 pm 

    I was simply trying to avoid Bush-era questions about ‘lawful’ versus ‘unlawful’ combatants, or those entitled to Geneva Convention protections versus those whose eligibility might be disputed by some. I suppose I could have simply said ‘combatant’, but I was trying to draw a clear distinction between someone met in combat and a prisoner in custody.

    As for shooting an unarmed bin Laden in a raid, that’s fine with me, but that was not part of the point you imply I was making.

    Do feel encouraged to respond to my questions.

  11. 11  Seeds  May 3, 2011, 5:23 pm 

    Jeff, I know that the questions are addressed to Steven, but don’t you think that the second one is a bit iffy?

    “Either you totally support extrajudicial execution, or you love Bin Laden and want to have his babies. Which is it to be??

  12. 12  Jeff Strabone  May 3, 2011, 7:25 pm 

    I don’t think the question is loaded, nor do I think that being glad he is dead implies approval or rejection of method. I should also say that wanting bin Laden taken alive to stand trial is a valid choice. One could conceivably regret that he has avoided justice in the form of legal process.

  13. 13  Seeds  May 4, 2011, 12:20 am 

    One could conceivably regret that he has avoided justice in the form of legal process.

    Might that have been partly what the original post was driving at…?

    And to say that he has “avoided … legal process” is an interesting use of the active form. I would have said that he “had the legal process avoided for him”.

  14. 14  Steven  May 4, 2011, 10:26 am 

    I must say I feel better now I know what the “valid choices” are.

    This thread at Adam Kotsko’s blog is quite interesting.

  15. 15  BenSix  May 4, 2011, 8:20 pm 

    Could I propose “fog of war”?

    (With regards to Christian reactions to bin Laden’s death, I loved Freddie de Boer‘s line, “Whose grave would Jesus piss on?“)

  16. 16  Steven  May 4, 2011, 9:43 pm 

    I was just about to make an obscure (to some readers, anyway) reference to Advance Wars, and then I clicked on your blog to see you had illustrated “fog of war” with some isometric computer graphics. Chapeau!

    Whose grave would Jesus piss on?

    Indeed. But then, whose grave wouldn’t Jesus piss on?

  17. 17  John Lofton  May 13, 2011, 6:09 pm 

    ARROGANT AMERICA. Imagine this scenario. Pakistan is pursuing a man they say is a “terrorist.” The man has, however, been convicted in a court of law of NOTHING. Many charges are made against him, of course. There are numerous allegations, but the man has been convicted of NOTHING. He’s had no trial, no what we in the West call due process of law — a process which it has been said,repeatedly, makes us DIFFERENT from “terrorists.” This man moves to America, to Maryland, where he lives in a big house, surrounded by high walls, a few miles from the U.S. Naval Academy. The Pakistan government learns where this man lives. So, without seeking the permission of the US Government, the Maryland government — or even notifying these governments prior to coming here — they send in choppers and a military team who kill this unarmed “terrorist” and his guards.

    ??Question: What do you think would be the reaction when all this became public? Obvious Answer: All hell would break loose! Such an action would be denounced on national TV by the President, Governor of Maryland, the Mayor of Annapolis. Our Ambassador to Pakistan would be recalled; we might even break diplomatic relations with Pakistan, close our embassy there, cut off all foreign aid. Their action might even be called a act of war by Pakistan against us. Complaints would be made to the United Nations by us. How this Pakistan “violation of our sovereignty as a nation” constituted the violation of numerous treaties would be cited. Several Members of Congress would die in a stampede on their way to TV cameras in the Capitol press gallery to denounce Pakistan. Drunken flash mobs from near-by sports bars would rally in front of the White House, burning the Pakistan flag and their own clothing. The lives of all Pakistani people in America would be endangered…..etc.??But, when AMERICA does exactly this same thing, that, supposedly, is OK, something to be applauded, cheered about, something to celebrate, to feel good about.

    But, what we did is NOT OK. It was utterly lawless, not in accord with, or authorized by, any valid law of God or man.??We are, sad to say — for the most part — an arrogant, stiff-necked, self-centered, hypocritical, prideful, we-can-do-no-wrong-because-we-are-Americans bunch of murderous, lawless bastards* who are cruising for a major bruising. It’s not going to be pretty what God has in store for us…….and we deserve it.??*Hebrews 12:8 KJV.

    John Lofton, Editor,
    Communications Director, Institute On The Constitution
    Recovering Republican

  18. 18  sw  May 14, 2011, 4:48 am 

    whose grave wouldn’t Jesus piss on?

    He was one of the very few people who could actually piss on his own!

    John Lofton vs Frank Zappa — this is something that has to be seen to be believed, and is far from irrelevant to

  19. 19  Frank in midtown  May 17, 2011, 7:33 pm 

    Dear John,
    Your view chooses to ignore the agreements which we had in place with the Pakistani government with regard to OBL. I would also suggest that you further your research into the history of “extra-legal” rendition. You may not like it, but it has long been the policy of the United States (shipping them off for torture by a 3rd party does not have an historic precident.) You argue “innocent till proven guilty” while ignoring our post-civil war history of “wanted: dead or alive” as applied to CSA gorilla fighters (their day’s “unlawful combatants.”) It would be nice if our history was consistent, clear, and as aspirationally lofty as you wish it to be, but alas it is not.

  20. 20  John Lofton  May 17, 2011, 8:27 pm 

    You’ve given me no Law of God or valid law of man, “Frank in midtown,” that authorizes the killing of bin Laden the way we are told he was killed. And the fact that something “has long been the policy of the United States” authorizes/justifies NOTHING.

    John Lofton, Editor,
    Communications Director, Institute On The Constitution
    Recovering Republican

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