Sunday, May 15, 2011

bin laden: no justice no peace

I know I'm a little late out of the starting blocks to talk about the killing of Osama bin Laden, but still.

If the American government could find him unarmed, subdue his associates, shoot him in the face then take his body away, they could have taken him alive. He could have been brought back and the Americans could have given their reasons for taking him. More importantly, he could have given his reasons for doing what he did.

Had he been made to stand and speak, allowed to define his position, it would have made the majority of muslims actively go 'hell no, he's not speaking in my name'. By being subjected to summary execution he becomes a pliable cipher to be claimed by all manner of causes, the silence he leaves can be filled by a myriad of future propagandists to further division and violence.

The White House says releasing pictures of Bin Laden's body would give the Islamists a 'propaganda coup' and may make things worse. Yet killing him in cold blood clearly does exactly that.

After the Second World War, the Allies faced the problem of what to do with Nazi war criminals. Winston Churchill opposed the idea of any trials, saying with good reason that there can be no doubt about Nazi guilt, and giving them a platform to mitigate or prosetylise would only help them.

Justice Robert H Jackson answered for the Americans, saying

Undiscriminating executions or punishments without definite findings of guilt, fairly arrived at, would violate pledges repeatedly given, and would not sit easily on the American conscience or be remembered by our children with pride. The only other course is to determine the innocence or guilt of the accused after a hearing as dispassionate as the times and horrors we deal with will permit and upon a record that will leave our reasons and our motives clear.

The Soviets agreed, and we had the Nuremburg trials. This was a major step forward from previous victories where the spoils were carved up by the victors who made a point of humiliating the vanquished. It set a tone for post-conflict activity from which we can trace a line forwards to the South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission and the Irish Good Friday Agreement.

If we are so right, it should be easy to demonstrate it. If our enemies are so wrong, let them spell it out for posterity. Let there be due consideration and evidence declared for all the world to see, now and in future. This is humane, this paves the way for peace, it speaks of a concern for justice that sets some folks apart from others.

The phrase 'brought to justice' is commonly used as a synonym for a tribunal or trial. So Barack Obama - his Nobel Peace Prize gathering dust at home - does a disservice to those progressive peace-seeking deeds set in train by his predecessor Harry Truman in 1945 by saying that the summary execution of Osama Bin Laden was 'bringing him to justice'. Justice is the process that ends with sentence. The killing of Bin Laden had no such process, it leapfrogged straight to punishment.

Obama has been keen to talk of "what makes us different" from Bin Laden with respect to the treatment of dead bodies. However, in the treatment of people who are alive, the Bin Laden operation is not easily distinguishable from the actions it punished.

There can be no claim that Bin Laden's deeds were worse than the Nazis. If people long before us, brought up in a world of empires, eugenics and all manner of supremacist thinking, could find a way to step forward, then we have no excuse for not doing the same.

The people whose policy of perpetrating crimes against humanity on those they intern in Guantanamo Bay and Abu Ghraib are not concerned with creating justice, let alone peace. Indeed, killing an unarmed captive who poses no immediate threat is in itself a war crime.

History shows that a preparedness to use force is not contradictory to the creation of peace, it just needs to be applied with intelligence, with forethought about the view from other parts of the world and from times yet to come, and with an abandonment of short-term Vin Diesel movie urges for retribution. When we yield to those impulses we pollute the moral high ground with the seed of future conflict.

Peace is the most precious of our intangible resources. It does not mean we cannot sacrifice some of it, but it must always be done reluctantly and with awareness of the consequences, actively concerned with minimising how much peace we lose.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Beautiful, concise, wise, civilised. Hitting every important nail on the head - Thank you