Sunday, May 8, 2011

An Iceberg in the Sea of Ethics

In civilized life, law floats in a sea of ethics.--Earl Warren

I've been thinking a lot about the killing of self-proclaimed terrorist, Osama bin Laden. My issue is not with the guilt or innocence of Osama bin Laden. He has declared himself responsible for 9/11; even if he's not, just wanting the credit suggests that if not 9/11 then he is responsible for other acts of terrorism. However, even if the police catch a person strangling the body with bare hands that person is still entitled to dues process under our laws which means a trial, a judgment, and a sentence. Even if that sentence is death, we don't simply execute someone without the benefit of due process, even when guilt is certain. Indeed, in our justice system, confession is often about brokering a deal, generally to take the death penalty off the table. In other words those who declare I did it gain a reprieve from execution and generally receive a sentence of life imprisonment in exchange for saving the state the cost of a full prosecution.

Traditionally, adherence to a system of justice that strives for fairness and an even application of law is taken as a significant mark of civilization. We, as a nation, certainly criticize and strongly object to the paths of nations that imprison without trial, punish without due process, and eliminate undesirable elements by simply executing them.

Our track record in recent years has not been good. We invaded Iraq based on false information which more and more evidence supports that our leadership knew to be false. We have imprisoned people at Guantanamo without benefit of trial which violates the Constitution in which many of us purport to believe. We have consistently refused to acknowledge that these prisoners, who haven't been officially charged with anything, have a right to a speedy trial, having made up a new term to apply to them, "enemy combatants." They are neither prisoners of war nor prisoners of our legal system, expressly so that they may be denied the due process owed under military law or civil law. I think the summary execution of bin Laden is yet another misstep on the part of this country. We insist to others that it is not might that makes right but that laws ensure justice for all. Yet in this instance we behaved much the same as any of the governments whom we have criticized in the past, acting as judge, jury and executioner and bypassing even a semblance of justice. Papa Doc and Idi Amin should not be our role models.

Funny thing is, the outcome would have been the same. No doubt bin Laden would have been found guilty and sentenced to death but in the eyes of the world we would have appeared to adhere to the higher standard for which we have so strongly advocated since the founding of this country. We haven't always reached that standard, but if a man or a woman's reach does not exceed his or her grasp, then what's a heaven for? (my thanks to Robert Browning)

I take issue with assassination as justice, no matter how vile the person. When we make exceptions to our ethics, to our code of law,  we lessen ourselves, betray our own integrity. My concern isn't for bin Laden, but for this country's ability to claim moral authority (which we do quite often) after this assassination. Imagine any other country entering a nation uninvited and killing a person who by its own account was not armed because of some terrorist act that person allegedly committed against its people, how would we regard that action?

Fellow blogger, Elizabeth, shared a passage from an article by Noam Chomsky that fleshes out my rhetorical question.
We might ask ourselves how we would be reacting if Iraqi commandos landed at George W. Bush's compound, assassinated him, and dumped his body in the Atlantic. Uncontroversially, his crimes vastly exceed bin Laden's, and he is not a "suspect" but uncontroversially the "decider" who gave the orders to commit the "supreme international crime differing only from other war crimes in that it contains within itself the accumulated evil of the whole" (quoting the Nuremberg Tribunal) for which Nazi criminals were hanged: the hundreds of thousands of deaths, millions of refugees, destruction of much of the country, the bitter sectarian conflict that has now spread to the rest of the region.

10 comments:

Mark said...

I think it would be fantastic if some formerly tortured prisoners swept in, kidnapped Bush and Cheney, shot them and dumped them in sea. RIGHT ON.

Alan said...

I think I'm bothered more by the celebration of the shooting than by the shooting it's self. I don't have access to enough information to judge the ethics of killing a known terriorist. I do know that the "moral high ground" we think we stand on in this country is built on our own acts of terror and political expediancy. Sometimes hard decissions have to be made. But dancing in the street because someone was killed makes me sick. We should be saddened by our failure to negotiate, lead by example, and live our espoused beliefs.

Ms. Moon said...

I have to say that I completely agree with you here. Somehow, this killing was just not right.

Lisa :-] said...

Sheria--sometimes I think that we boomers were raised with a view of our nation that is not necessarily factual. Think about it...we had just "won" World War II, and it looked like we were the source of all hope, goodness, and morality in the world (never mind that we had murdered tens of thousands of innocent Japanese in order to end that "just" war...) I'm afraid the truth about our country--about mankind in general--is something quite different than what we were raised believing, or what we would like it to be. In the end, one can only keep to the moral high road in one's own life, and hope that putting that example out there will influence others around us and down the road.

TAO said...

"The iceberg in the sea of ethics..." Sheria, THAT sea dried up a long time ago....and the iceberg is melting fast.

I cannot help but believe that in some distant future a historian will find that our demise began sometime in the mid-1980's; that is when the "sea" started drying up.

I am sure that no one is as aware of the fact as Barack Obama is. From closing GITMO, to civilian trials for the detainees, to torture, to the Patriot Act, to Osama Bin Laden...doing "the right thing" as been all but impossible.

It might actually go back to the Iran Contra deal...

Sybil said...

My comment seems to have goen again into thin air...
I just said how much I agreee with all you have said dear Sheira..It saddens me very much to see how little regard people have for one another and how low we have sunk..I can only say that one day we will all be judged by how we judge others and....christians especially...should be very very careful..
Much Love as always Sybil xx

Sybil said...

My dear Sheria, I am with you in all that you have said, I feel very sad to see our world sinking to new lows each and every year..I also know that one day we will all be judged on how we judge others and that in itself should make everyone ...especially those of us who declare ourselves christian...very very careful.
Much Love Sybil xx

Bucko (a.k.a., Ken) said...

I was glad to hear that there were two teams in standby, one if he was captured, one if he was killed. the intent was not kill, but most knew that was the likely outcome.

Nance said...

You have my gratitude for delineating the causes of my ambivalence about OBL's death. And, even with that sentence, I express that ambivalence: it's so hard to call it assassination, but such it is. Sometimes I get so caught up in the misuses of the law and the abuses that make the news (by judges, lawyers, police, etc.) that I forget the moral beauty of it.

So many of us could not celebrate. There was relief that OBL was not, himself, a threat any longer, but there was also a relentless sense of...something...along with the knowledge that a war against terrorism can't be won. That nagging something, it turns out, is shame.

jack-of-all-thumbs said...

Still turning this over in my head. Absolutely not celebrating, but equally convinced that taking him alive would have led to more negative repercussions than seem to have resulted from his assassination. All in all, a pragmatic call. Let's try to help the world move on and support moderate Islam and moderate Christianity, as they marginalize their radical elements.