When President Obama announced that Osama bin Laden, the leader of Al Qaeda, was dead after a search for over 10 years, he declared, "Justice has been done". His words were echoed by the UN Secretary-General who said, "Justice has been done to such a mastermind of international terrorism." When Ratko Mladic, the former Bosnian Serb general was arrested after a 16 year hunt, President Obama said, "While we will never be able to bring back those who were murdered, Mladic will now have to answer to his victims, and to the world, in a court of law".
Justice is one of the most perplexing concepts in law, morality and jurisprudence. It can include simply bringing someone to trial, or seeing someone convicted or acquitted after a trial, or perhaps even an act of vengeance bypassing any legal system. Clint Eastwood, Charles Bronson and Jody Foster have made popular films depicting extralegal acts of what audiences sympathetically consider proper justice. What are the differences of perceptions of justice in the cases of bin Laden and Mladic?
There have been relatively few voices raised questioning the killing of bin Laden. Kenneth Roth of Human Rights Watch and two special experts with the High Commissioner of Human Rights have voiced concern about bin Laden's death. The example of Israel capturing Adolph Eichmann in Argentina and bringing him to trial in Israel is cited as an example of justice in the strict legal sense. Dismissing any argument about self-defense, the killing of bin Laden fulfilled President Bush's announcement of wanted dead or alive and President Obama's authorization of assassinations in the name of national security, including American citizens. The arguments about the difficulty of a trial as well as the general satisfaction that he was gone superseded any serious discussion of human rights; bin Laden being shot at point blank range is a very satisfactory sense of justice for most.
That is why the arrest of Mladic is so intriguing. Could we imagine a Bosnian soldier who had lost relatives at Srebrenica finding Mladic and killing him claiming self-defense? A lawyer for the Mothers of Srebrenica was quoted as saying that the mothers were "happy that after all they will get a chance to face Mladic in court". Why shouldn't this apply to the relatives of those killed in the Twin Towers or Pentagon? Did any of those dancing in the streets across America feel that they had been denied the satisfaction of seeing bin Laden in court?
The death of bin Laden, including his quick and secretive burial, seem to have fulfilled a Western sense of justice in all senses of the word Western. (We are much less certain about the reactions throughout the rest of the world.) The arrest of Mladic and his upcoming trial also seems to satisfy a Western sense of justice, although his supporters in Serbia maintain loyalty.
There are certainly technical arguments about the nature of the crimes of bin Laden and Mladic. There are also obvious differences between acts committed in the past and those that are ongoing. What I find difficult to understand is the emotional acceptance that justice was and is being done in both cases, where the killing of bin Laden was legally questionable. As a former military correspondent for the Wall Street Journal wrote, "For many at the Pentagon and the Central Intelligence Agency who had spent nearly a decade hunting bin Laden, killing the militant was a necessary and justified act of vengeance".
Vengeance is a primitive emotion. For example, what is to be done with the Syrian torturers of the young Hamza? Justice, in the legal sense, is supposed to go beyond emotions towards a more objective reasoning in cases often involving raw emotions. Mladic was indicted for the bombardment of Sarajevo which killed 10,000 and the massacre of 8,000 Bosnian Muslim men and boys at Srebrenica. Bin Laden was indicted as well, but was never allowed to sit in a court of law.
The differences in the sense of justice for bin Laden and Mladic may reflect profound differences in cultures, as we have seen in the recent case of Dominique Strauss-Kahn. Although Barack Obama was a student of law at Harvard Law School and a Professor of Law at the University of Chicago, the killing of bin Laden responded to a very American sense of law and order. Throughout its history, the United States has had a sense of justice coming from the Wild West, as evidenced by so many John Wayne movies. The court of law has always been suspect, as seen in the trial of O.J. Simpson. Accepted justice by the general population has not always corresponded to the legal system. As the famous assistant to Oliver North testified in the Irangate trial, "Sometimes you have to go above the law".
There will be very few discussions in the United States about what happened to Osama bin Laden. The general population is more than satisfied that he is gone, however it happened. President Obama's popularity jumped in the polls; he can no longer be seen as being soft on security. But, I would hope that there are questions being raised about the entire Operation Geronimo - the name itself going back to the cowboy wars against Native Americans - and that the trial of Mladic demonstrates the true validity of what law and order should mean.
June 8, 2011