Justitia, Old Bridge of Heidelberg

Justitia, Old Bridge of Heidelberg
Justitia, Old Bridge of Heidelberg © Gernot Keller, 2007
Blinkered Justice articles also appear on CrimeTalk and Government In The Lab

Friday, 6 May 2011

Obama and bin-Laden: in whose name do you wish justice to be done?

The following article has been republished in full from The Pryer as the original has been archived on an old server and is no longer available. 

President Obama speaking at Camp Lejeune (c) Lance Cpl. Michael J. Ayotte
Following the death of Osama bin Laden, President Barack Obama proclaimed that “justice had been done”. Whilst many have good reason to celebrate the death of this mass murderer, Obama’s references to notions of justice raises questions about the type of justice he is referring to, and whose justice he is talking about. These different ideas of justice are at the heart of the issues that originally led to 9/11.
Reading through Obama’s statement, it seems that Obama discusses justice (i.e. bin Laden’s death) in terms of it being a fair outcome for the crimes that he committed. Justice is uttered several times towards the end of his statement, and always towards the end of each paragraph, emphasising ideas of a sense of closure. Justice is also articulated through western notions of security and risk.
However, Obama uses contradictory repertoires to explain how Western justice has been served. In terms of justice for the families of those killed on 9/11, he states “We will be true to the values that make us who we are”. Obama later asserts that the USA is, “one nation, under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all”. Yet, many have been detained at Guantanamo Bay without trial. 

Recent wikileaks files reveal that about 20% of those detained at Guantanamo Bay were innocent. Regardless of this, human rights are not the sole preserve of the innocent or the good. All detainees were actively denied their liberties during their renditions, their incarcerations and their treatment, without recourse to a legal-political form of justice. This contradiction undermines western concepts of justice, and ultimately harms ideas of democracy and the USA’s standing as its moral authority.
Obama’s statement should also be read in conjunction with his statement on Srebrenica. In it, he demanded that those who perpetrated the massacre be arrested and prosecuted, including the man thought to be responsible for the killings, Ratko Mladic. Whilst bin Laden was supposedly killed in a gunfight, it was always clear that the USA government wanted him dead or alive. Why advocate a different form of justice for another mass murderer?
Stencil of bin Laden, Bucharest, Romania (c) bixentro
Initial delight and rejoicing at bin Laden's death has since been replaced by fear. Justice in its retributive legal form seeks to punish the criminal in a proportionate manner. In national cases involving mass murderers, as effected through western penal systems, being found guilty means either life imprisonment, or in some USA states , death. Families and friends of victims feel secure knowing that the perpetrator won’t harm them again. 

In contrast, the death of bin Laden has heightened security concerns in the UK and USA. The 'truth' surrounding his alleged burial at sea has been challenged and the religious manner of his burial has stoked further controversy. Bin Laden was merely a figurehead for his movement, and although he helped perpetrate atrocities, he has followers who may harm those same families and friends of victims again. The international justice enacted on bin Laden may have immediately sated its diners, but it is the (just) desserts of fear and insecurity that we need to consume to  feel truly content. 
Nobel prize-winning economist and philosopher, Amartya Sen, contends that there is no single, concrete and definitive justice; we each have our own philosophy of justice. Sen argues for a ‘global justice’, in which we understand that we have a sense of duty to each other as human beings at all times, no matter the circumstances . He advances a global human rights agenda to resolve injustices, rather than an international justice system, such as the International Criminal Court (ICC); the USA has never ratified the Rome statute of the ICC, and does not intend to. Any notion of justice requires dialogue between an ‘us’ and ‘them’. We need to understand the reasons for such attacks, and we need to respect and address these issues in order to make our own lives safer and more secure. 
Whilst such ideas sound fanciful and utopian in the current climate, it is a better option than foresaking values of democracy and freedom and living in fear of a terrorist attack. 

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