Tuesday, May 3, 2011

Justice and Revenge

Here’s Michael Tomasky, a sturdy liberal, saying something that crossed a lot of liberal minds over the last couple of days (my emphasis):
Obama has a degree of credibility now that he'd lacked before. He's not a military man, not steeped in military culture. That's all still true. But now it's basically canceled out. He got bin Laden. Period stop. An utterly un-rebuttable statement of strength. . . .

“The GOP narrative about Obama has been in part predicated on his exoticism, let's call it, and in part on this idea that he's a weak leader whom they can push around. Now, he's done the ballsiest thing that an American president has done since who knows when, and he succeeded at it. Perfectly.”
Contemplating a “balls[y]” liberal president confidently throwing his weight around in foreign affairs is a strange sensation for conservatives and liberals alike. But it’s an especially welcome sensation for liberals. Admit it, isn't it a relief not having to come up with a tortuous explanation of why, despite appearances, being genuinely "presidential" in this day and age is a matter of having the moral fortitude to preside intelligently over the country's relative decline by “leading from behind”?  Yet liberals should be self-conscious enough to admit that the rush of satisfaction they're getting contemplating Obama's newfound bellicosity is a guilty pleasure.

Yesterday I remarked on how both Obama and George Bush promiscuously combine the language of war and the language of justice when they talk about counterterrorism. They both thought taking bin Laden out was a vital national security objective, not only because it would help disable Al Qaeda going forward, but to secure a measure of backward-looking retributive justice for 9/11. Reader Lone Wolf commented acutely that both Obama and Bush were confusing "justice” and “revenge.”

Let’s reflect a little bit on the difference. Justice and revenge are both a form of retribution, a way of restoring the moral order by making miscreants pay for their misconduct. But we normally think of "justice" as something dispensed by a disinterested party, like a judge or a duly vetted jury, after an authoritative determination of guilt. Revenge (or vengeance) is retribution administered by the victim of earlier misconduct answering only to himself and his own standards.

Any way you slice it, what happened to bin Laden Sunday was not justice, but revenge. As I write these words, I’m still trying to sort out inconsistent-sounding reports: Obama sent the Navy SEALS on a “kill-mission” but we would have taken bin Laden alive if he’d surrendered without a fight; he was taken out because he resisted arrest, but didn’t have a weapon in his hand when the SEALS fired the fatal shot; etc.

If bin Laden either wasn’t really resisting arrest, or his resistance wasn't really life-threatening to the SEALS, his death was a targeted assassination. As such, it had nothing much to do with the disinterested administration of justice, or an excusable exercise of our right of self-defense. Indeed, it was arguably forbidden by both the laws of criminal justice and the law of war.

Killing bin Laden, however, was a perfectly good way of "taking vengeance" or "exacting revenge" through an extra-judicial execution.  It was hard to listen to Obama explain himself without getting the impression that was what was really going on. Beneath the affected solemnity and the lamely uplifting rhetoric about what Americans can do when they put their mind to it, Obama's message was crystal clear: I took the guy out because he deserved it; you got a problem with that?

That wouldn’t have been an incongruous thing for George Bush, or any other neo-conservative, to say. They think of the international system as a state of nature in which justice, properly so-called, is out of place because there’s no perfectly disinterested authority to dispense it. That's why they dismiss the International Criminal Court’s pretense of being a uniquely disinterested dispenser of international justice as anti-American subterfuge.

As far as neo-conservatives are concerned, it’s the job of the United States to police the international system according to its own lights because American standards of international rectitude are the best worldly approximation of universal standards.  American national interests are therefore uniquely congruent with the interests of all nations and peoples. Once you buy into the neo-conservative idea of American exceptionalism, American vengeance is the closest approximation of disinterested justice you’re likely to see in the real world of international affairs.

Yet wind up any liberal and he'll tell you that it’s the American President’s job to promote a rule-governed world order in which international institutions disinterestedly dispense justice and unilateral military action is illegitimate unless it's a matter of exercising an inalienable right of self-defense. So where does a liberal president get off portraying himself as the avenger-in-chief of the international order?  And where, for that matter, do liberals get off reveling in the spectacle of him doing it?

Liberals can bask in their newfound admiration for Obama or uphold their vision of the international system.  But it's hard to see how, in good conscience, they can do both of those things at once.

24 comments:

Anonymous said...

If you think it's difficult now to figure out what your conscience is telling you, wait till the White House releases photos of the corpse. That's going to be a whole different matter.

Jake said...

The White House is now confirming that bin Laden wasn't armed. This was a targeted assassination of a guy who could have easily been taken alive.

Popinjay said...

So what do we make of this? Let's agree, for the sake of argument, that it was a targeted assassination. Is this OK?

I'm glad Bin Laden is dead and who isn't. Would it have mattered if the US bombed the compound and killed him that way? I doubt we'd be having this conversation. Also, since the only people in the room were Bin Laden -- and at least one of his wives -- and US forces, we could say anything we want. So no one is trying to make this any easier by saying he was armed when he apparently wasn't.

I'm just wondering how this is going to play out in our country, especially among liberals, and abroad. It's not feeling right, though I feel in my heart that Bin Laden should have been tortured like his innocent victims on 9/11.

jms said...

You know, this sort of assassination team used to be called a "death squad", and was universally opposed and reviled by Western democracies. Suddenly, death squads are the new cool. This is not the sort of change I was hoping for ...

Anonymous said...

interesting that the decision to go get him is considered "ballsy". Would it not have been a bigger risk to have not gone after UBL until after coordination with the Pakistanis whose sovereignty we violated? Can you imagine the furor that would have occurred if UBL had slipped away again? I agree with the decision to get him but still find it a bit ironic that the politically expedient decision is now being considered courageous.

myth buster said...

I don't see a problem with the extra-judicial execution of a self-confessed war criminal. The Geneva Conventions say that illegal combatants can be shot on sight, even if they surrender and pose no threat.

Anonymous said...

After 9/11 I said that if it was up to me, if I had the chance to kill Bin Laden, I would do so, but not tell anyone and let events take their course. I have to wonder what the outcome would have been if the team had gone in, done the deed and just left. Would we be talking about anything now, or would the news be even bigger?

Anonymous said...

A progressives's political version of Viagra.

SH said...

"Yet liberals should be self-conscious enough to admit that the rush of satisfaction they're getting contemplating Obama's newfound bellicosity is a guilty pleasure."

They'd call it a fascist impulse if they saw it in someone else. I don't think it is (in them.. or in people many of them would label as such)… just been called a fascist enough by ‘liberals’ to think I can authoritatively point that out.

Luckily, the international law movement is mostly what US conservatives say it is... a leftist popularity club vs. an actual justice system.. otherwise, without Obama's leftist street cred he might be called out on this. Again, not an opinion shared by me (i.e., that his action here was either wrong or actually illegal).. I think Osama was not just a political leader but a military one.. a combatant in this new rebirth of stateless organizations and actors... Killing him should be no more illegal than assassinating an enemy general in a declared war (esp. if said general was also a war criminal and his live extraction was not 100% guaranteed / could fail if attempted)... We didn’t send every war criminal (or pirate) home for a military trial; in the past we empowered officers to execute them on the battlefield if getting them off it (or back to the US) had risks or was impractical.

So if you’re asking me, Obama did the right thing but what he campaigned on was total BS… and the people who believed and parroted it for years before the election are also full of the same.

Anonymous said...

It seems that there are more and more details sneaking out that Obama may have voted "present" on this thing 4 or 5 times, and that Panetta was the one who pulled the trigger. It would not surprise most of us as Mr. Obama has never really had to make a tough decision...you know, that 3:00 AM call? Anyway, even though we had the right outcome, in my estimation, I am still waiting to figure out something that our president has done from beginning to end that hasnt ended up looking like dogpoo.

SH said...

Anonymous said...

"It seems that there are more and more details sneaking out that Obama may have voted "present" on this thing 4 or 5 times, and that Panetta was the one who pulled the trigger."

These kinds of stories are impossible to confirm (and/or deny). I’d be skeptical.

For perspective, now that Bush is out of office and some of his staff are writing their books about their experiences it is being documented how not only wrong were most of the outside / media attempts to analyze the internal administration debates… but how baseless and circular they were (citing each other rather than any actual sources)… War and Decision comes to mind being one of the best examples of the revisionist histories.

Panetta was probably consulted (CIA people were involved in the mission)… but the actual decision maker? It is easy to spin consulted into ‘the’ decision maker btw…

Anonymous said...

Yes they are virtually impossible to confirm. Yet, this is where character and trust is so important. When we have two press conferences and get materially different reports, that just doesn't set well with me. Especially since the track record with this WH in telling the truth is suspect at best. President Obama has a history of voting "present". My experience is that under pressure, people do not suddenly grow a pair, if you know what I mean.

Anonymous said...

Let's get one thing nailed down. You can't vote "present" on something like this. The buck stops with Obama and rumors and innuendos don't change anything. He is responsible for the decision and he will live with it for his entire presidency - good or bad.

Another thing: it's unanimous that everyone thought Bin Laden should be killed. Many of us are just a little queasy about how it went down.

Ponder this hypothetical: what if the same event occurred during Pres. Bush's presidency? How would we view the targeted assassination? Then ask yourself, why would it feel different if Bush did it vs. Obama? Shouldn't we view it the same way?

We don't. Nobody expected that it would happen this way. This is why in the old days, stuff like this was always under wraps. These things are supposed to happen and then be covered up so we won't have to think about how we feel about them.

Anonymous said...

Props to the Pres!
Knew he would grow into the job.
You liberal ninnies need to grow a set and realize the world is a rough place and sometimes you need to treat terrorists like youse guys want to treat right wing talk show hosts.
So quit your damn navel gazing and celebrate an occasion of justice/revenge.

Anonymous said...

The incongruity of the two memes is perhaps why a liberal friend of mine said "Oh, I'm in awe of the president's speech!" when he gave us the news.

Not that Osama was dead, just the speech.

Dave said...

Obama responds to his critics:

"You want the truth? You can't handle the truth!

Son, we live in a world with walls that must be guarded. Who's gonna do it? You? You, Lieutenant Weinberg?

I have more responsibility than you can fathom. You weep for ethics and question my methods. You don't know what I know. That bin Laden's death, while morally uncomfortable, saved lives. And my existence, while grotesque to you, saves lives! But deep down, in places you don't talk about at parties, you want me on that wall. You NEED me on that wall.

We use words like honor, code, loyalty. They're the backbone of our lives. You use them as a punch line!

I haven't the time or inclination to explain myself to a man who needs my protection but questions the way I do it. Better just to thank me. Or pick up a gun and stand a post.

But I don't give a damn what you think you are entitled to!

Anonymous said...

To Dave: Brilliant. Bravo, man, Bravo.

Anonymous said...

He told you he'd do this in 2008:


“I understand that (Pakistan) President Musharraf has his own challenges. But let me make this clear. . . . If we have actionable intelligence about high-value terrorist targets and President Musharraf won’t act, we will.”

end of story, period.

Dorothy said...

He told us he was going to get Osama--not execute him when he was unarmed and apparently not even putting up a fight.

Anonymous said...

Here's what I wish. I wish we captured him alive. Got him on the first plane to Gitmo. Waterboarded his ass for a few days. Then stuck him in a cell for the rest of his life with no wives, no reading material, no sunlight -- just the US national anthem, playing over and over and over ...

Anonymous said...

Your blog sucks

Anonymous said...

I'm pretty liberal when it comes to civil liberties and the rule of law. I have no guilty pleasure about the execution of Osama Bin Laden, only a certain stunned horror. This is not how a righteous country, or a righteous leader, should behave. There should have been a trial, a conviction, and possibly then an execution. It should have been held in an international court. Instead, it appears increasingly clear that well-armed, well-trained American troops shot an unarmed man....a man most probably guilty of heinous crimes, but one whose motivations were arguably retributory for US 'transgressions'.

This is not how we create a lasting peace. If we can do as we will because we have the capability and wish to make a point, how can we expect others not to?

Anonymouser said...

To Anon at 10:41 pm: I see your point. But I'm afraid the others in question, our enemies, understand force and revenge a whole lot better than they would justice and fairness. Remember who we are dealing -- people who kill innocents on planes and in office buildings, people who behead journalists, people who treat women as property. I'm not saying we should stoop to their level, nor do I think what our military did and what the administration ordered is a clear cut wrong.

I just think a lasting peace will only come in time with a new generation who has respect for humanity and sees opportunity to fulfill a productive life. Hopefully this change is coming in the Middle East.

c t said...

How can we expect a new generation to respect humanity, when we, the US, cannot practice what we preach? It's unbelievable how worried we act when considering releasing a photograph, yet we are willing to kill an unarmed man on foreign soil. As much as we, as Americans, don't want to admit it, Al Qaeda and other extremists don't only act out on simple hate for freedom and democracy. While you or I may agree with foreign policy decisions made throughout the world, there are people that are adversely affected. If our drones, ordered by the president, kill an innocent family because of bad intelligence, does that family now have the right to take action against our country? The answer should be no because revenge should not be way of the world. Should the Muslim be any less upset that we just killed their family than you or I was on 9/11? Believe me, I have no sympathy for OBL, but the circumstances in which he was killed worries me greatly about the direction our country is going. The only way to set an example to the next generation is by practicing justice in it's true form. I hate to say it, but I fear that what we did by basically assassinating OBL has taught the youngest generation that an eye for an eye is how we think.