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.