Justice Has Not Been Done, Mr. President

The civilized West likes to look down on archaic Muslim countries. But a proper trial of Bin Laden would have done more to bolster the standing of the West than Obama’s comment that “justice has been done” by the execution of the top terrorist.

Yesterday was a day of relief for the international community. Even the German chancellor Merkel sent a congratulatory note to President Obama. But what do we have to say about the commando mission that killed Osama Bin Laden? Do we agree with the assessment that the shooting of the Al Qaida leader was not only unavoidable but good?

A majority seems to support that idea, in Germany as well as in the US. It sets the precedent that we can kill someone – arguably a very hateful and cruel person – without due process. The argument goes that someone who resembles a diabolical beast, a creature of hell, more than another human being is not entitled to the norms that we generally set for the humane treatment of others.

A convenient death

If Bin Laden had been captured and tried, it would have resulted in prolonged disagreements between the US and the Muslim world. It would have galvanized opposition to Americans and American forces. That is what happened when Saddam Hussein was captured and tried. It is thus very convenient that the world’s most wanted terrorist died during the military operation. And his quick burial at sea has prevented the emergence of a land-based burial site as a place of worship. Already, internet forums around the world are abuzz with rumors that Bin Laden was not killed, that this was another fake track laid by the US government. The results of face recognition and DNA testing will do little to dispel these myths. Conspiracy theories have a tendency to stick. Even today, many Muslims believe the story that Jews were deliberately spared on 9/11 and somehow escaped death in the Twin Towers.

Ultimately, the threat from extremist groups will not change with Bin Laden’s death. The decentralized structure of Al Qaida does not require a CEO to lead the organization – and ever since the attacks on New York and Washington, Bin Laden served as a spiritus rector rather than as someone with active involvement in planning and coordination.

The death of Bin Laden serves as a reminder that we are indeed experiencing a clash of civilizations. Since 9/11, the gap between the advanced Western world and the archaic-religious societies of the Islamic sphere has only increased. This cultural gap is the primary reason behind the rise of violent extremism: We are caught in a cycle of superiority and inferiority that neither side can escape. The West sees its faith in progress and its focus on secular society threatened by the worship of violence. Islamists are appalled by Western notions of liberalism and regard themselves as the victims of economic and technological exploitation. They reject the idea of modernity and replace it with rhetoric and images of premodern Islamic culture. Osama Bin Laden used them in his earlier video messages, Mohammed Atta drew on these discursive streaks in his final letters.

Vengeance or justice?

But today, our Western idea of justice seems remarkably similar to pre-modern ideas about vengeance. “Justice has been done”, in the words of President Obama. But what does justice mean? In this context, it is equated to the ancient idea of “an eye for an eye” and not measured against the achievements of the modern judicial system and the separation of powers.

For a civilization that prides itself on its liberal traditions, a trial would have been the better option. In recent history, the Eichmann trial in Jerusalem comes to mind as a parallel. To see the architect of terrorism appear before a judge to face justice would have been the ultimate confirmation of the depth of our commitment to the ideals of a free democracy (It would also have prevented some of the conspiracy theories). An official verdict would have served as the manifestation of our belief that Osama Bin Laden was a human being who nonetheless negated even the basic tenets of humanity – and was thus shunned by the rest of the civilized world. At the end of the trial, evil would have been exposed in all its banality.


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