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Vengeance is Never Sweet

“Justice has been done ” –

 It’s hard to hear anything else about the killing of Osama bin Laden.

But what kind of justice is this, asks Stuart Rees, Director of the Sydney Peace Foundation, and for whom has it been done?

Bin Laden has been killed. Official Americas’ thirst for revenge has been satisfied. The mood is jubilant but ugly. Outside the White House, at Ground Zero in New York, in towns and cities across the country, young frolickers wave the stars and stripes, shout USA USA and party into the night.

On Monday May 2nd, after Obama’s statement the previous evening had given the ‘we’ve got him’ news, the New York Times provided pages of admiration – almost no other news – for the ‘brave navy seals who killed this Satan of a man’. USA Today announced ‘a great upluift for America’. Interviewees said ‘this shows that this country always gets its man’, ‘that’s what happens if you mess with us.’

On the same Monday evening for six hours, every television news channel covered one story – the elimination of Bin Laden. The stations competed to produce a climax in audience excitement as though their alleged excusives could reflect the drama of helicopters landing on the high walled compound in distant Abbotobad.

Almost as sickening as the boasting about a brilliantly planned operation – given the green light by a newly crowned tough guy President – has been the almost complete absence of dissenting voices, at least in the mainstream media. A few bloggers have raised questions but the consensus verdict is that justice has been done. What justice ?

The most audible debate is coming from members of Congress who don’t think that the bullying and swaggering has been sufficient. These representatives accuse the Pakistan government of harboring Bin Laden. They threat to punish that country by cutting off aid. Guilty until you show otherwise. Can’t believe you did not know. Let’s hold Pakistan accountable, not ourselves.

The accusatory tones, the assertion that, despite the deficit, unemployment and unending wars, America is the best country in the world, takes us back to the days following 9/11. No debate, no asking why, only jingoism, rampant nationalism. French fries became freedom fries. Congressmen assembled to sing the star spangled banner. The childish but dangerous good guys, bad guys view of the world promoted the doomsday solution that might is always right. There’s the same noise and the same prescriptions now. It beggars belief, though Obama was partly reflective and did not return to the bring it on bravado of the Bush years.

Bin Laden was killed by a bullet to the head and one to the heart. He was unarmed but was initially said to have fought back. Was he supposed to have said ‘welcome to my compound, I’m glad you’ve come. Arrest me if you like but let me show you round first.’

The word justice has been sullied, as though its value can be explained by hundreds of journalists, politicians and TV commentators repeating the mantra ‘justice has been done’. There is no justice in state murder, no justice in ignoring criminal law’s due process even if the evidence is irrefutable that Bin Laden masterminded the attacks on New York, Washington and helped to plan other terrorist atrocities. There is no justice in implying that the death of one man, however notorious, can deflect attention from the slaughter of hundreds of thousands of innocents in Iraq and Afghanistan.

We could be groping towards a semblance of justice if Bin Laden had joined Bush and Blair in the dock of the international criminal court, each charged with crimes against humanity and each presumed innocent until shown otherwise.

I have put this point of view to a barmaid and a barman in the Irish Boston pub where I’m scribbling this piece. The barmaid said, ‘My god that’s interesting but I could not find anyone in here who would dare to say that.’ The barman looked around, furtively, ‘ You’d have to be brave to say that. I’d be scared to death to say such a thing. I’ll follow what everyone else is saying. He was a bad man who deserved to be killed.’

Judgement by politicians. Trial by media. Conviction by public consensus. Voyeurs arrive at the Abbotobad compound. Journalsist explain how high the walls and why garbage was burned instead of being collected. A few crocodile tears are shed as we’re told by White House spokespersons that Bin Laden’s body was washed and wrapped accoding to Muslim custom and ther slipped gently into the north Arabian sea.

Perhaps Australian politicians and media are not singing from the same hymn book of revenge. I’d like to be reassured but I’ve not dared to look.

Stuart Rees, (Usually in Sydney) from Boston, USA May 4th

Adapted from an article first published by the NewMatilda

Professor Stuarts Rees is the Director of the Sydney Peace Foundation

Rees has worked in community development and as an academic in many countries and was previously Professor of Social Work at the University of Sydney. He has practised conflict resolution within organisations and has been involved in peace negotiations in Cambodia, Israel/Palestine and in relations between Indonesia and West-Papua. Stuart is the author of over ten books, including Passion for Peace: Exercising Power Creatively (2003) and Tell me the truth about war (2004).