Justice in Shadows

02 Oct 2011

Adam Serwer, for Mother Jones, on the assassination of Anwar al-Awlaki:

What we’re talking about here is not whether Awlaki in particular deserved to die. What we’re talking about is trusting the president with the authority to decide, with the minor bureaucratic burden of asking “specific permission,” whether an American citizen is or isn’t a terrorist and then quietly rendering a lethal sanction against them.

The war on terror made madmen into villains and mere criminals into masterminds. These savages1 beat at us with their sticks and they, managing to strike a blow that caught us off-guard, made us bleed. Our response was not a calm, thoughtful reaction to their action. We, in our fear and anger, lashed out and cried that these criminals were the gravest of threats and, more importantly, we declared them to be but tiny cogs in much greater machinations. In that singular act, they were men transformed from barely civilized creatures into the very idea of terror.

A human being can be killed; it is even possible to eliminate entire groups, no matter how elusive or pervasive. But how would it ever be possible for us to defeat terror?

And worse, when we do manage to catch one of these terrorists–either before they can act or after their deeds have occurred–we do not mete out justice as deserving of the criminal. Their acts are too evil and vast to be judged by our courts. Again, men transformed. We have made them evil embodied instead of criminals and, thus, they are beyond justice. We allow no prosecution to occur and so their crime, which violated the very order of our civilization, goes unpunished and–worse–unresolved.

Justice does not occur simply to punish the criminal. Justice occurs to restore order to society–to civilization itself–and to remind us all that we have our places within that society. A criminal does not break the law, they break themselves against the law. Judgment, when distributed from our established legal system, restores them.

We pretend that laws can protect us and that punishments will deter crimes, but laws do not have built in obedience and there are no punishments great enough to prevent every wrongdoing. Inevitably, one individual will abuse another. Theft, rape, murder. With their actions, criminals cause harm that cannot be erased. It is pretended that justice (with all her blindness) will heal these wounds. But justice is not vengeance. It does not exist to make the wounded feel well again. It is there to maintain the social contract: that unspoken agreement between citizens and the state that declares us all to be bound by the same rules.

(Via Ta-Nehisi Coates)

  1. If you take offense to the idea that these men were savages, understand that a singular comment does not necessarily generalize outward to an entire collective.