When the First World War broke out, Henry James wrote a letter that lamented the sad truth that the event revealed to him about European civilization:
The plunge of civilization into the abyss of blood and darkness by the wanton fiat of those 2 infamous autocrats is a thing that so gives away the whole long age during which we had supposed the world to be with whatever abatement gradually bettering, that to have to take it all now for what the treacherous years were all the while really making for meaning is too tragic for my words.
I thought of James’s observation when I heard about the killing of Osama bin Laden. Was this what all the years of American civilization, all the years of supposed progress to a more “civilized” approach to justice were making for? Was this the end result of all of our progress?
In fact, of course, these concerns were probably beside the point. Such acts—the outbreak of a senseless war or the summary execution of a hated enemy--are not the “ends” of anything and have very little to do with civilization or progress (except of course for so-called technological “progress”). Rather they depressingly affirm that in such moments civilization, culture, and even those ideals of human justice for which we strive every day are all revealed to be only veneer, a surface gloss on the unchanged and immutable human need for violent release and desire for revenge. Was it Nietzsche who said that one aspect of the Ancient Greeks’ genius was they knew not to look beneath the surface?
In her new book, The Eichmann Trial, Deborah Lipstadt notes that, upon the announcement by Israel’s Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion in 1960 that Adolf Eichmann, one of the architects of the Holocaust, was in Israeli custody and would be tried by an Israeli court, a leading secular newspaper reflecting the “strange mix of emotions” that greeted this news in Israel printed a verse from Psalm 94. That Psalm, which begins (in the King James version) “O Lord God, to whom vengeance belongeth; O God, to whom vengeance belongeth; shew thyself,” was also something that I thought of when hearing of bin Laden’s execution. And, as may already be plain, my emotions in reaction to the news were decidedly mixed.
Despite the rhetoric of our teachers and leaders concerning our system of justice, despite what we are taught from our earliest childhood about the rule of law, and despite what you and I may believe about the critical importance of delivering justice to people like bin Laden, at the moment of decision those leading our government did not trust the courts or the people to judge bin Laden. As the account of his killing emerged, it was acknowledged that he was unarmed when confronted by the Navy SEALs. In my view, no convincing explanation has been given as to why he was nevertheless dispatched. Was a decision made at some point and at some level that it was better to kill him then to capture him and then, eventually, put him on trial?
I believe such a decision likely was made, especially in light of the (in my experience) unprecedented decision to dispose of bin Laden’s remains at sea (which initially was bafflingly described as part of Muslim ritual). That step shows the degree of thought that went into a strategy of erasing this noxious person from the earth. The removal was to be quick and utterly final—and those goals could not be served by his capture and the uncertainties of a trial. But were these the only or even the right goals that should have been considered? Was justice served, as the President asserted? And, if, as I believe, it was not, what is the cost?
I am reminded again of the Eichmann case, even though the present circumstance is very different. For one thing, bin Laden, unlike Eichmann, was the head of an active and deadly threat to our and the world’s security. Eichmann, in contrast, was a spent force, whose crimes were all in the past and who posed no present threat. Nonetheless, a comparison between then and now is perhaps instructive. In 1960, when Eichmann was captured, Israel, like the United States now, was despised in much of the world. Like the United States in the case of bin Laden, Israel violated the sovereignty of another country (Argentina) to capture a malefactor of world-historical proportions (although, again, one cannot compare Eichmann to bin Laden for many reasons). Yet, unlike us, the Israelis did not kill Eichmann, although they could have done so. Rather, in the teeth of the world’s condemnation, they brought him back to Israel to stand trial. This was not an easy process. For example, it required Israel to make extraordinary efforts to insure that Eichmann had a fair trial and Eichmann’s lawyers made every available argument in his defense (including that Israel’s kidnapping had violated international law). The result of this was that, when the court ultimately rendered its verdict, the world—if it wished to do so—could see that justice had been done, that the guilty man was pronounced guilty and punished according to law. And, in the process, all of Eichmann’s crimes were brought into the light of day.
How is it that the tiny country of Israel had the courage to withstand the world’s opinion and perhaps the arguments of realpolitik and do this, but we could not? The result is that we, the public and the world, will never know the truth about any of the charges laid at bin Laden’s door. Instead of documents and other evidence aired in a courtroom where the public can see and judge them for themselves, we are left with “leaks,” innuendo, untested allegations, rumor, and propaganda. Perhaps most importantly, the people, through their representatives on court and jury, have been deprived of their precious right to judge the accused. Vengeance is not justice—how often have we heard this? Yet in this instance, this vitally important instance, our elected leaders simply ignored the distinction. We, of course, will reap whatever the unintended consequences of that decision might be.
Osama bin Laden should have been truly brought to justice and tried before the world for his crimes. We had a chance to do this. But that chance was buried with his remains at sea.