So yes…the US has reportedly finally killed Osama bin Laden, our one-time ally against the Soviet Union in Afghanistan. Last night, hundreds of young people in DC and NYC took to the streets to gleefully chant “USA”, and revel in the success of the US military. Motivating most of this revelry is the belief that justice has been done. It is this point that I am having a hard time accepting.
What is justice? If one only analyzes 9/11 from the American perspective, the killing of bin Laden is sweet; after all, nearly 3000 Americans and others were killed by that man’s plan. Those who are celebratory over bin Laden’s death are so because they believe that restitution was made for the dead he left in his wake. However, there is a huge problem with this perspective; the only deaths that seem to matter are American deaths, the only justice and restitution that ought to be demanded is American justice, and the only entity that truly benefits from the euphoria over bin Laden’s death is the American State.
By only considering American lives, the equation to justice looks like this: the death of one to atone for the slaughtering of 3000 innocents. The scale of terror and death is very small when viewed this way. Americans could rightly be proud if that were the full story.
But the death of bin Laden has come after 10 years of fighting two wars, at a cost of over one trillion dollars to the US’ balance sheet, and the loss of civil liberties domestically. The US govt has waged all-out war on many parts of the Middle East, all in an attempt to revenge the death of 3000. The scales of death and terror, when all those who have died as a result of these wars are considered, are enormous and mind-boggling. Some groups estimate in the low one hundred thousand range; other groups like Lancet place the number of civilian deaths in Iraq alone at over one million people. The best estimates for the civilian Afghan death toll is 5-20 thousand using numbers by the UN and Human Rights Watch. Of course, we cannot forget the 4500 or so American troops that have died in this venture, not including the other thousands of our troops who have been injured or disabled – both physically and mentally.
What does this really mean? Do you know what hundreds of thousands of dead bodies would look like if they were piled up and stacked next to each other? Are those deaths somehow less important than the 3000 dead on 9/11? Does their death not motivate action among Americans because they’re foreigners? Is it because our media just doesn’t talk about the details of the death toll in the Middle East that we can turn a blind eye to it?
Justice has often been depicted in history as a set of scales. Lady Justice, ever-blindfolded and unbiased, holds these scales in her hand, and the objectivity of the deeds determine what is justice. If we were to apply this method to 9/11 and bin Laden’s death, would the 9/11 deaths outweigh the totality of death committed by the US in its stated goal to rout the world of terrorism? Does justice only exist for Americans? To the Muslim world, when they look at the unbalanced scales and the extreme magnitude of death and destruction around them, do they feel like justice has been served?
As a libertarian, I place a priority on the intrinsic value of all human life – not just American life. I am concerned by all death in the world that comes at the hands of the State — regardless of which state is doing the killing, and which people are being killed. To completely ignore the statistics of death that resulted from US policy in the Middle East in order to revel in the death of one man who killed 3000 is inhumane, and reveals a deep-seated myopia and nationalism within the American public. Justice was not accomplished through this killing; the scales of justice would weigh against America if we truly viewed justice as an impartial measurement.
Governments at war can only sustain the war machine on the ignorance of the populace. A lack of critical thinking is the only thing that can effectively maintain blind obeisance to the State –the type of blind obeisance that motivated many people to take to the streets in celebration last night. Randolph Bourne effectively described this process in his 1918 polemic work “The State”:
War is the health of the State…In your reaction to an imagined attack upon your country or an insult to its government, you draw closer to the herd for protection, you conform in word and deed, and you insist vehemently that everybody else shall think, speak, and act together…And you fix your adoring gaze upon the State, with a truly filial look, as upon the Father of the flock… A people at war have become in the most literal sense obedient, respectful, trustful children again, full of that naive faith in the all-wisdom and all-power of the adult who takes care of them, imposes his mild but necessary rule upon them and in whom they lose their responsibility and anxieties. In this recrudescence of the child, there is great comfort, and a certain influx of power. On most people the strain of being an independent adult weighs heavily.
True justice does not kill indiscriminately in the pursuit of one man. True justice values all human life as being inherently valuable. Those who truly love liberty and justice also love peace because they know that peace is the only way to have true liberty and justice. It cannot come through violence and military exploits. It can NEVER come through the State. One of the greatest peace advocates the world has seen, Mahatma Gandhi, said it best when he cautioned against such unbridled pursuit of justice: “An eye for an eye makes the whole world blind.”