Please Don’t Call It Justice

A sampling of the mostly young celebrants who gathered near the site of the fallen World Trade Center towers shortly after Pres. Obama announced the death of Osama bin Laden. (photo: Rob Boudon)

“Justice has been done,” proclaimed President Obama last night.

I beg to differ.

Justice is not simply someone getting what they deserve. If that were justice, the Declaration of Independence would never have complained about King George III denying the colonies trial by jury. In far too many cases, this amounts to vengeance, not justice. “He did it, and deserved his punishment” may be a verdict and a sentence, but these two things alone are hardly justice.

“He had it coming” is not the language of justice.

Justice is about what society does, not what an alleged criminal has done. Justice is about giving fair treatment to the accused, no matter the enormity of the crime they are accused of, no matter the place in society of the accused, and no matter the place in society of the victims. Justice is about things like the rule of law and an opportunity to confront one’s accusers and challenge evidence. Justice is how society sets itself apart from those who perpetuate injustice. Justice is how society says to those who violate the community’s rules, “You may act this way, but we do not.”

Justice was not done last night in Pakistan.

Justice is not about death on a battlefield. However justified a war might be, to protect innocent people and prevent even more horrible violence from taking place, war is *not* justice. War is war.

“An eye for an eye” started out as a statement of justice, in laying down the proposition that the punishment for the guilty must be proportional to the offense they committed. Today, all too often, the meaning of this phrase has been perverted to become a justification for punishment apart from any kind of trial.

John Wilkes Booth, the assassin of President Abraham Lincoln, was not brought to justice. He was killed in a firefight outside Port Royal, Virginia. His co-conspirators faced justice, but he did not.

Justice looks like this. Justice looks like this. Justice looks like this. It may be imperfectly rendered in specific cases, to be sure, but even in its imperfect renderings, the ideal remains.

Osama bin Laden took credit for many attacks on the United States and its people. Had he ever faced a trial, whether in US courts or before some kind of military commission or before an international war crimes tribunal, I have no doubt he would have been convicted on the basis of his own words, as was the case for the major Nuremberg defendants. But that is a hypothetical, because there was no trial for bin Laden, and after what happened last night, there never will be.

Bin Laden did not face justice last night; he faced death.

There is a difference.

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