Look at his head noddin’
May 2, 2011
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?