We cannot equate justice and retribution

In our current geopolitical landscape, it seems the way we experience the world is analogous to the way we play a chess game. There are two opposing sides. The side that you happen to be on is the good guy and the opposite side is the bad guy. The entire strategy is really a battle for power. In this battle for power, we lose our ethical sensibilities and obligations because we have one thing on our minds — to win. While it is true that the Cold War is over, the mindset of good versus evil persists.

However, maybe we have to rethink this chess metaphor. I will discuss the aftermath of bin Laden’s death to illustrate my point.

When word first got out that Osama bin Laden was killed, the immediate reaction was startling. Firefighters, police and regular citizens celebrated in the streets of New York and in front of the White House by touting nationalistic slogans. In the following days, newspapers all over the world shared the news. The Daily News notoriously featured a picture of bin Laden with the caption “Rot in Hell.” Perhaps it was Vice President Joe Biden who perfectly expressed the dichotomy of good and evil when he proclaimed, “Osama bin Laden is dead and General Motors is alive” at the Democratic National Convention in Charlotte, N.C. earlier this month. The crowd at the convention, enthused by these words, chanted in camaraderie “USA!” There is no doubt that Biden achieved unity in the audience, but that is exactly what is so frightening in this case. Conor Friedersdorf, staff writer at The Atlantic, comments on Biden’s remarks about bin Laden. :

“One needn’t underrate the importance of justice to understand a lesson at least as old as scripture: that neither justice nor vengeance nor any sort of killing whatever heals a wounded heart,” Friedersdorf wrote. “Love, grace, and time, those can all heal, but not a bullet in bin Laden’s corpse.”

Indeed, the killing of bin Laden was widely rejoiced as an act of revenge against evil — a feeling heightened by top public officials such as Biden.

We never actually saw bin Laden as a human being. Few people questioned the circumstances of bin Laden’s death. Was he simply assassinated, or was there an effort made to bring him to trial? If we live in a democratic society with notions of justice, then they should apply to everyone — no exceptions. Otherwise, justice becomes a wretched term that is synonymous with revenge.

But Osama bin Laden was a human being. Of course, there may be an urge to define him as a wicked, devilish monster. To an extent this feeling may be understandable, especially for all those more directly impacted by 9/11. However, as beastly and immoral his acts were, bin Laden was still human. And he, at the extreme end, exemplifies the capacities that all humans are capable of to commit cruel acts. Of course his acts were wildly immoral, but when we participate in acts of revenge, we display our own cruelty by entering and reinforcing the endless cycles of violence.

One may think the fundamental question is: where do we divide the line between justice and retribution? That is the wrong question. Equating these terms to any degree is a very dangerous route. Retribution is the chessboard. If we were to think of a future polity, perhaps we can scrap the chess board and think of another metaphor, or structure, in which there aren’t these limitations. To make this happen would require a drastic change in the power structure so that the system would not be defined by good and evil or winners and losers.

Edward Radzivilovskiy is a contributing writer. Email him at [email protected]