Bin Laden: Justice or Revenge?
by MARK GABRISH CONLAN, Editor
Copyright © 2011 by Mark Gabrish Conlan for Zenger’s Newsmagazine • All rights reserved
For the past decade, the name “Osama bin Laden” has had an odd place in American folklore. As the alleged mastermind behind the September 11, 2001 attacks on New York’s World Trade Center, Washington’s Pentagon and wherever the fourth plane was supposed to hit — either the White House, the Capitol or (more likely, I suspect) a nuclear power plant where it could have really done long-term damage — bin Laden inspired fear and hatred in a large number of American people. He also instantly became a touchstone for a massive propaganda campaign led by the George W. Bush administration and the Right-wing media that inflated 9/11 from a criminal act of mass murder into an act of war — ironically, giving bin Laden a dignity and standing he didn’t deserve — and used him to undermine civil liberties and pursue an authoritarian agenda that flagrantly violated our own Constitution.
At the same time, bin Laden faded so completely from popular view — especially when the second President Bush decided to use the 9/11 attacks as an excuse to finish his daddy’s unfinished business with Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein, who had nothing to do with 9/11, had no weapons of mass destruction and posed utterly no threat to the U.S. or its people — that U.S. Leftists derisively referred to him as “Osama bin Forgotten.” He was easy enough to forget, especially when the U.S. media decided to stop airing his occasional videotaped communiqués on the ground that they could be sending messages to his alleged minions in this country. He was especially easy to forget as the so-called “war on terror” morphed into two massive ground wars in Afghanistan and Iraq — and as the man himself slipped across the Afghan border into Pakistan, where he was finally found in late April after a nine-month surveillance of a known bin Laden courier.
So when I heard that a team of Navy SEAL’s had stormed the comfortable house in Abbotabad, Pakistan where bin Laden was living in — despite the common image from friend and foe alike that had had him roughing it in caves all these years — my reaction was neither sadness nor glee. It was more like reading the obituary of a long-forgotten movie star whom you hadn’t heard of for years and were startled to find out was still alive until just a few days earlier. I turned on the TV for more information and learned at quarter to 8 p.m. on May 1 — quarter to 11 East Coast time — that President Obama was going to give a speech from the White House explaining what had happened and how. So I waited. And waited. And waited, since with his usual excess of caution that exasperates his friends while giving his foes just one more item to savage him about, Obama was carefully crafting his statement and didn’t give it until over an hour after his staff had initially promised it.
What appalled me more than anything else when Obama finally did speak was his calm, matter-of-fact statement that “justice has been done.” I couldn’t help but flash back to the second President Bush using virtually the same words in 2003 when U.S. commandos killed Saddam Hussein’s sons, Qusay and Uday, and my reaction was the same as it had been then: “That’s not justice, that’s revenge.” Then it occurred to me that in this country we have so conflated justice with revenge that most Americans simply can no longer tell the difference. Justice for Osama bin Laden would have been capturing him alive and putting him on trial — in a civilian court, not one of the rump “military tribunals” Bush II created and Obama has now endorsed — for the mass murders of nearly 3,000 people on September 11, 2001; just as justice for Saddam Hussein would have been trying him at the International Criminal Court for his atrocities against his own people, not a mock trial by his political and sectarian enemies and a sordid “execution” leaked to the world by an anonymous attendee who came with a video-equipped cell phone.
But then even in our own criminal justice system we so conflate justice with revenge that the principal justification for clinging to the barbaric practice of capital punishment (which an overwhelming majority of Americans still support — indeed, it’s an indication of how we take our “victories” where we can find them that death-penalty abolitionists hail that polls showing support for capital punishment have dropped from five-sixths of Americans to “only” two-thirds) has dramatically shifted. It used to be about deterrence — killing people who killed people to discourage other people from killing people. Then it was justified on the mad-dog concept that even if executing a murderer didn’t deter anyone else from killing, it would at least make sure that that person didn’t kill again.
Now, the principal justification for the death penalty is “closure” — the sick idea that the family members, loved ones and friends the murder victim left behind won’t be able to move on with their lives until the state kills the killer of their partner, relative or friend with the same cold-blooded calculation and deliberation of the killer him/herself. It’s as if we accept the idea that there should be bloody retribution and revenge — that there should be “an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth, a life for a life” — and that the state better kill murderers because otherwise those the victim left behind would do it themselves. We usually hear this “closure” nonsense in ordinary criminal justice proceedings — but we heard it again on May Day night, as TV stations around America trotted out relatives of 9/11 victims to repeat their sad stories and say that the death of bin Laden had brought them that precious “closure,” that release that had eluded them for the nearly 10 years since the attack.
We heard other things, too. We heard people gathering around Ground Zero in New York City — which, as an example of the can’t-do spirit of modern America, is still the empty hole in the ground it’s been ever since the last remnants of the World Trade Center were carted away — and once again uttering the fascistic chant of “U-S-A! U-S-A!” that had been heard right after the attacks. And we’ve heard the Right-wing media of talk radio and Fox News attempting to “spin” bin Laden’s death to make sure President Obama doesn’t get a burst of popularity from it, and also saying that the information used to find bin Laden came from torture — oops, I meant “enhanced interrogation” — and that silly, prissy Obama with his excess of scruples has closed off that route to further information and thereby endangered all our lives. (Obama was actually located and brought down by putting his known associates under surveillance, a classic police tactic, not information obtained through torture.) If nothing else, bin Laden’s death has confirmed that Obama remains the most hated President at least since Franklin Roosevelt, and that his ideological enemies are so dedicated that if Obama went on TV and told us the sun was hot, they’d feel compelled to say, “Of course it’s not! It’s really cold!”
I’ll give Obama points for one aspect of the bin Laden operation: rather than order the house bombed from the air, he chose the riskier tactic of a commando raid that would take out bin Laden without blowing innocent civilians to smithereens. Perhaps he learned his lesson from the bombing raid in Libya a few days before, which was supposed to take out dictator Muammar al-Quaddafi but instead killed one of his sons and several of his grandchildren — just as in 1987 President Reagan had ordered the bombing of another Quaddafi residence and killed, not Quaddafi, but his daughter. But Obama loses points with me now that it’s come out that, contrary to the initial reports, the U.S. never had any intention of capturing bin Laden alive under any circumstances. They went there to assassinate, not arrest. It’s understandable in one way; after the firestorm of criticism over the administration’s plan to try Khalid Sheikh Muhammad, who allegedly ran the 9/11 operation, in a civilian court, and their embarrassing back-tracking, one can forgive Obama for not wanting to bring even more grief on himself by taking bin Laden alive and then having the embarrassing problem of what to do with him.
At the same time it’s an indication of just how totally the Right, with its agenda of meanness, brutality and revenge, has come to dominate American politics that Obama couldn’t risk the political firestorm that would have resulted from capturing bin Laden alive. Instead his body was dumped at sea, allegedly because no country would take him and because the U.S. didn’t want his burial place to become a shrine to would-be terrorists — and with its typically wretched attempts to be even-handed, the Obama administration just pissed off both sides. Right-wingers are slamming Obama because bin Laden got some sort of Muslim funeral on board ship before his body was tossed into the ocean, while practicing Muslims worldwide see the dumping of bin Laden’s body as an insult. What’s more, the administration is refusing to release the photos of bin Laden’s corpse — just as the Bush administration shipped home the U.S.’s own war dead in the dead of night so Americans would be able to cling to their neat video-game idea of what war is like and not have to deal with its real-life cost.
There seems to be common agreement that the death of Osama bin Laden won’t make Americans any safer. Part of that is fear-mongering; the powers that be in this country don’t want to take the risk that Americans might actually emerge from the zone of fear that’s been created since 9/11 to encourage them to yield their civil liberties and right to dissent. Part of that is real enough; Osama bin Laden had long since become irrelevant to the struggle of Muslim extremists against the U.S. and the Western world in general. Al-Qaeda has long since organized along the lines of the U.S. Animal Liberation Front (ALF) and Earth Liberation Front (ELF), which are little more than Web sites inviting people to post photos and videos of actions carried out in the name of those groups’ stated principles. [This is not meant to imply a moral equivalency between al-Qaeda and ALF/ELF, who are saboteurs rather than terrorists; they destroy property but make sure to avoid taking lives.] The new al-Qaeda hasn’t been able to pull off anything on the scale of 9/11, thank goodness — and some of the attempts of terrorist wanna-bes have been almost laughably inept (shoe bombs? Underwear bombs?) — but they still serve to keep the U.S. public afraid, and a scared public is one susceptible to the lure of a radical Right that promises “security” and offers a wide range of “enemies,” both foreign and domestic, who can be used as convenient scapegoats for everything that ails our country.