* This is one of those posts you’ll see here occasionally in which I’m thinking out load. I welcome your comments. Just be aware that I may reply by changing my mind.


I’ve been reflecting recently on what it means that Osama bin Laden was “brought to justice.”

Frankly, I’m a little bit uncomfortable with that phrase. Like most other Americans, I think it’s good that he’s gone. I fully support Pres. Obama’s decision to take him out in the way we did. I think the United States was entirely justified in tracking and killing him. The Navy Seals are certainly impressive and I’m glad they are our men.

But I feel much more comfortable understanding his killing as a justified act of war than as an act of justice. And I think much of that has to do with my moderate principles.

For a moderate, justice can’t be easily separated from the processes that surround it, the various institutions and procedures we’ve established and refined in order to ensure (as much as we can) that justice is carried out. Many of these processes are part of what we call the judicial (or justice) system. Though the Constitution devoted little space to the details of the judiciary, four of the first ten amendments (the Bill of Rights) are devoted to protections for the criminally accused. In war time, the Supreme Court has historically had a difficult time defining the extent to which those Constitutional protections should apply to foreign nationals, on our soil or in our custody.

Osama didn’t get any of these protections. And that’s appropriate. As the mastermind of several attacks on the United States, he had repeatedly declared and engaged in a war on us. Both the invasion of Afghanistan and the wider War on Terror have been initiated with his death/capture as a central priority. In a way that I think is unique to our history, the United States has been at war with one man and his private army of supporters for almost 10 years. Ending that war involved not conquering a nation but killing our central opponent.

But confusing that act of war with justice takes us, I fear, further down the slippery slope of ends justifying means. War tends to warp, not clarify, our notions of justice. We’re only now beginning to correct our overly-punitive drug sentencing patterns after decades of a zealous War on Drugs. I don’t know how long it will be before we really correct our various abuses (torture, rendition, detainment, etc.) from the War on Terror, or whether we really ever will reclaim our full heritage of civil liberties, sacrificed in the name of security. But I think regarding targeted assassination as “justice” is either a symptom or another step down the road to regarding might as right.

2 Responses to Justice
  1. Jared
    May 5, 2011 | 11:08 pm

    I’ve been meaning to write more but haven’t had much time, so I’ll at least post this question:

    If he wasn’t brought to justice, then how could he have been?

    This entire discussion has one that’s left me puzzled. I think you can argue that as a moderate there’s danger in pursuing this notion to the degree that some have.

    • admin
      May 6, 2011 | 1:35 am

      I think it was really too late to ask that question. We’d decided long ago that the United States’ relationship with bin Laden was one of war, not crime. That being the case, our response to him was (appropriately) one of violence rather than prosecution. The more we learn about the operation, the clearer it is that short of waiving a white flag and begging to be arrested (and maybe not even then), he wasn’t going to escape being shot.

      I haven’t read much of the larger debate over this issue yet (just saw today’s Slate article), so I’m not sure what you mean about the “danger in pursuing this notion to the degree that some have.” But I don’t see the danger in trying to identify and maintain the division between acts of justice (pursued through the justice system) and acts of war. If we let the distinction become too blurry (especially in a protracted war), we risk our own civil liberties and sense of values.