Tuesday, June 07, 2011

Justice as unspeak

One of the posts that I had hoped to write but have not been able to get to is a response to the death of Bin Laden, with one of the key points being how disturbing I find it that Bin Laden's killing has been described - and is accepted - as justice. The reasoning being similar to that which I expressed before when the same was said about the death of al-Zarqawi (a killing which appears to me to be more legitimate than Bin Laden's, whom I believe could have been apprehended):

In the video you will notice that President Bush says that Al-Zarqawi has been brought to justice. He has not been brought to justice, he was killed. This may have been, and for all I know, most probably was the only way to stop the horrors being committed by al-Zarqawi, but killing him has nothing to do with justice. Bringing him to justice would have meant having him stand trial for his crimes against humanity, holding him accountable before a court of law. That is the concept of justice that the civilized world has adopted. The other is punitive and vengeful - the Biblical conception of justice - and we know that for much of time that the Biblical conception of justice dominated Western society, society was not just, but unjust.
I am pleased to see that I need not bother writing that portion of such a future post, because Steven Poole, author of Unspeak, has already addressed it and come to much the same conclusion.

Responding to President Obama's claim that "justice" had been done by Bin Laden's death, Poole writes

It is worth pausing to admire Obama’s masterful rhetorical conflation here of two different conceptions of justice. One sense of “justice”, of course, has to do with courts, legal process, fair trials, and the rest. This has to be the sense invoked in Obama’s reference to the desire to bring Bin Laden to justice. In this spatial metaphor, justice is a place: implicitly, a courtroom, or at least a cell with the promise of process. (Or even, in extremis, Guantánamo Bay, still not closed, where indefinite “detention” or imprisonment is Unspeakily palliated with the expectation of some kind of tribunal.) To bring someone to justice is to put them in a place where they will be answerable for their alleged crimes. To be answerable in this sense, it helps to be alive.

But it is quite another sense of “justice” — meaning a fair result, regardless of the means by which it was achieved — that is functioning in Obama’s next use of the word: the quasi-legal judgment that justice was done. On what sorts of occasion do we actually say that justice was done? Not, I suppose, at the conclusion of a trial (when it might be claimed, instead, that justice was served); rather, after some other event, away from any courtroom, that we perceive as rightful punishment (or reward) for the sins (or virtues) of the individual under consideration. (Compare poetic justice.) The claim that justice was done appeals, then, to a kind of Old Testament or Wild West notion of just deserts. What, after all, happened between the desire to bring Bin Laden to justice and the claim that justice was done? Well, Bin Laden was killed. He was not, after all, brought to justice. Instead, justice (in its familiar guise as American bombs and bullets) was brought to him.

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