Tuesday, May 3, 2011

Rule of what law?

Does it matter that US special forces shot Bin Laden dead rather than arresting him and bringing him back to stand trial? I see very little evidence that this issue is on anyone's mind--but my own. And why should it matter? He was guilty, wasn't he? He got what he deserved ...

But I persist in thinking that what was needed was not Bin Laden's dead body, thrown into the sea, but a restoration of lawful process. That for me was what was so very disturbing about the World Trade Center attack, not the affront to our national pride, not even the horrific deaths themselves, but the sense that violence had invaded the civic space, encroached on the everyday lives of civilians on their way to work, marked the most ordinary of times with the threat of sudden death. And that in turn was the consequence we inflicted first on the Afghanis, then the Iraqis, and now once again the Afghanis: death from the air, drone attacks, bombs in marketplaces, sudden sectarian assault, weddings turned into holocausts, houses blown to pieces. Toppling governments and setting up clumsy occupations, we turned these countries into lawless, randomly violent zones where the 9/11 experience has lasted intermittently for nearly a decade.

Wouldn't the appropriate therapy be a restoration of due process, a return to the norms of civil procedure? Bin Laden, this notorious criminal, this fomenter of violence, would it not have been a salutary exercise to do what civilized societies do? To "bring him to justice," not in the derisory sense in which that phrase is being tossed around by President Obama and the news media to describe an act of vigilantism, of extrajudicial murder, but to bring him to what we used to mean by "justice," the careful procedural kind prescribed by our Bill of Rights and honed over centuries of careful jurisprudence. To present the evidence of his crimes in open court, to hear his defense, and judge him on the facts. To carry out a lawful sentence. Wouldn't this have established some clearer sense of what those values are for which we are so prone to fight? Wouldn't this have been a way to begin healing the raw sores of violence and war we--not Bin Laden, not the Taliban, but WE, the United States of America--have brought to this devastated region?

I listened just now to a press conference in which John Brennan of our Homeland Security department described the events of Sunday's raid. In response to a reporter's question he was quick to say that we were ready to bring Bin Laden back alive. But we knew it was unlikely he would let that happen, Brennan went on, and sure enough, he engaged our troops in a firefight, and was shot dead. But the reporters persisted. Firefight? Did Bin Laden fire on our troops? Brennan was not so sure. Did he actually have a weapon in his hand? Here the punctilious Brennan seemed to lose the thread of his story altogether, and wandered into a long digression about what sort of individual Bin Laden was, hiding in a million dollar mansion, using women as human shields (?!), sending others to risk their lives ... Now the US government has recanted its story: no women used as human shields, no firefight, Bin Laden was unarmed. Our readiness to capture him alive was just a big lie. What happened was an execution, extrajudicial murder, a crime. But still our leaders and spokespersons repeat endlessly how "justice" was done, as if that word, liberally applied in place of the actual procedures of justice, can return us to the standards of lawfulness and order that we have cast aside.

I found it reprehensible ten years ago, when Muslims chanted their support of the September 11 attacks. The crowds cheering Bin Laden's death outside the White House, at Ground Zero, here in Kenmore Square, struck me the same way. We are a brutal, bullying nation, an empire subject to no one's rules, careless of the damage we inflict. The brutal facts of Bin Laden's demise are not the most important part of this dispiriting story, but they are another step in our long descent from principle, along with the public's indifference to such questions, and the visible bloodlust that stands in its stead. U--S--A, the flag-wavers were chanting, but what does that proud name stand for any more?