The Spiritual Life of An Atheist

May 8, 2011

Spiritual Life of An Atheist: Justice Agnostic

By all accounts May 1, 2011 was a banner day for the United States.  A team of Navy Seals stealthily invaded Osama bin Laden’s personal compound in northeastern Pakistan and fatally shot him.  Following President Obama’s lead, near universal acclamation prevailed that bin Laden was brought to justice.  Rowdy crowds cheered in the streets because justice had been done.  The next night Stephen Colbert threw a “long-awaited We Got Bin Laden party,” exhorting his adoring audience into chants of “USA USA USA” and playing snippets of the triumphal at Dorothy’s killing of the Wicked Witch of the West. 

In the next segment, Colbert’s guest, the President of the Council on Foreign Relations, Richard Haass, soberly explained that “the only bad news with” bin Laden’s killing “is that it really won’t change things all that much” because since 9/11 terrorism has been franchised.  Other commentators have noted that the Yemeni Al-Qaeda is in ascent, while bin Laden’s branch has been on the wane.

The United States caused bin Laden to suffer the ultimate penalty for his lethal crimes against its citizens.  This tit for tat is what the more boisterous members of the nation were celebrating.  Tit for tat is not just a schoolyard tactic.  It is an ancient impulse and potentially powerful strategy against a committed adversary.  Failing to respond in kind can embolden an adversary to further attack because they believe they can act with impunity.  Countering this effect is the logic underlying mutually assured destruction as a deterrent to nuclear war.  When commentators heralded the killing’s puncturing of bin Laden’s mythology, they were alluding to his seeming invulnerability to retaliation.  Until May Day 2011, bin Laden appeared to be able to attack the United States without consequence.

Was finally evening up the score against bin Laden justice?  By the ancient measure of retribution, yes.  On this scale, the United States gave bin Laden his due. 

But justice weighed only on retribution’s scale is a thin account.  Retribution between well-matched adversaries can spawn an escalating cycle of tit for tat.  Responding in kind can spur an adversary to additional attack out of vengeance or to prove they cannot be outmatched.  This is why the Obama administration warned of the increased terrorist threat following bin Laden’s killing.  Retributive cycles are wars of attrition, with the possibility of no side feeling vindicated in the end due to the losses inflicted.  Was the notorious Hatfield-McCoy feud justice?  Is the interminable Israeli-Palestinian conflict justice?

To take the bold step of killing bin Laden in his compound, President Obama must feel confident that the United States and Al-Qaeda are not well-matched adversaries and that the United States can contain whatever retaliatory responses bin Laden’s killing inspires. 

President Obama’s presentation of the killing was equally strategic. In his announcement, President Obama invoked both justice and God, suggesting that not only might but also God was on the United States’ side.  No doubt bin Laden and his followers believed their bloody hands gripped God’s just sword.  Such invocations of divine justice are appeals to tribalism writ large.  The Obama administration’s decision to kill bin Laden was about geo-political strategy rather than divine right, and its public packaging similarly calculated.

Piling on the justice theme, a favorite media play was to interview a survivor of 9/11 about how the killing made them feel.  Most described a sense of closure, but some did not.  The off-script moments made the interviewers pause.  Justice brings a satisfied feeling, so the denial of closure undermined the storyline.  No follow-up inquiry was made. Perhaps the unobliging survivors longed for a richer justice than simple retribution, such as the restoration of peace, or felt the loss they had suffered could not be put right.  Is justice always, or even often, possible?

None of this is to say that the killing of bin Laden was not justified.  But that the United States was justified in killing bin Laden does not mean that his death itself constitutes justice.  Justice is a big word, much bigger than the death of one man.

copyright 2011 by S. Anne Johnson


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