Monday, May 9, 2011

On Monsters and Mirrors

Celebrant: Will you strive for justice and peace among all people, and respect the dignity of every human being?
People: I will, with God’s help.[1]

Osama bin Laden was a human being.  In the aftermath of his death, the media has identified him in many ways:  as a terrorist, as an Islamic fundamentalist or fanatic, as public enemy number one, as a monster.   What seems to have been overlooked is the fact that he was, first and foremost, a human being. 

As such, all that he did and all that he came to represent falls within the range of human possibility.  He was not, sadly, an outlier in terms of the way in which he gave expression to his humanity.  Instead, he actualized a potential that lies within us all.  It is this that makes it so difficult to see him clearly: the way in which he mirrors our own capacity for evil.  We’d rather avoid looking into that mirror.

It is far easier to treat bin Laden as a screen upon which we can project our own propensities for violence, vengeance and scapegoating.  The glare from this projection obscures the dark shadows of our own civilizational disease.  The life and death of Osama bin Laden reveals as much about us, as it does about him.

President Obama, among others, would have us believe that in killing bin Laden, we have secured justice.   When a bullet to the head delivered by trained assassins constitutes justice, when even the pretense of respect for the rule of law and due process is blithely dismissed, then we have travelled far indeed from the very ideals we supposedly are defending.  We have become what we purport to hate.

That, of course, is how hate works.  It serves to justify anything.  The principle of proportionality, so basic to any form of authentic justice, can be disregarded when we are dealing with “monsters,” rather than human beings like us.  We lost all sense of proportion in response to bin Laden’s terrorist campaign long ago. 

As the Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist, Chris Hedges, reminds us,

Hundreds of thousands of Iraqis and thousands of Afghani and Pakistani civilians have been killed.  Millions have been driven into squalid displacement and refugee camps.  Thousands of our own soldiers and Marines have died or been crippled physically and psychologically.  We sustain these wars, which have no real popular support, by borrowing trillions of dollars that can never be repaid, even as we close schools, states go into bankruptcy, social services are cut, our infrastructure crumbles, tens of millions of Americans are reduced to poverty, and real unemployment (which considers the out-of-work, the underemployed, and those who have stopped looking for work) approaches seventeen percent.  Collective, suicidal inertia rolls us forward toward national insolvency and the collapse of empire.[2]

According to what scale of justice can bin Laden’s death balance such losses?  Does it justify torture, extra-judicial killing, and the invasion and occupation of sovereign states?  Why is the life of an innocent civilian killed by a predator drone strike any less valuable than the life of a person killed by a suicide bomber?  If the scope of human suffering he has caused makes bin Laden a “monster,” what does that make George Bush and Barack Obama? 

It makes them human.  That is the tragic truth.  As human beings, we are equally accountable to the demands of justice – all of us. 

The causes and conditions that made bin Laden’s terrorism possible are complex, and the United States shares responsibility for them.  That does not absolve bin Laden from responsibility for either the evil he has done, or the evil done in his name.  But in judging him rightly, justly, we cannot avoid a painful look in the mirror.  Justice begins at home by holding our own leaders accountable.

And if we truly desired justice for the sake of peace, we would have begun by acknowledging bin Laden’s humanity, and the dignity of authentic justice due even to him.  In the aftermath of WWII, we managed the Nuremburg trials.  If Hitler’s henchmen merited an attempt at real justice, surely the same is true for bin Laden.

The German philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein said, “Tell me how you seek and I will tell you what you are seeking.”[3]  What we sought by assassinating bin Laden was not justice.  What we sought was the illusion of invulnerability through imperial domination.  Let us pray that the bullet in his head does not represent the death-knell of the American democratic project as well. 

Seeking justice is not easy.  It eschews political expediency in favor of moral exertion, even sacrifice; however messy and imperfect.  That is why Christians implore God’s help – and God’s forgiveness – in the process. 

In the wake of bin Laden’s assassination, we need to pray for both; now, more than ever.

[1] From “The Baptismal Covenant,” The Book of Common Prayer, p. 305.
[2] Chris Hedges, The World As It Is: Dispatches on the Myth of Human Progress, p. 311.
[3] Quoted in Hedges, p. 13.

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