Counter-martyrdom and the trial of bin Laden

In my last post, I talked briefly about the disturbing paganistic and technophilic aspects to Osama bin Laden’s brand of Islamism and the Americans’ War on Terror. Along the way, I remarked that I would have “infinitely more” preferred bin Laden to have been put on trial, although I still believed “justice had been served”. I feel that I should clarify both remarks, then invite my readers to share their thoughts.

To begin with, there’s the matter of capital punishment. I’m by no means a pacifist, nor am I wholly opposed to the death penalty, as I believe in some circumstances it can be merited. I’ll cite the Universal House of Justice’s logic here:

The availability of the death penalty as an option in the judicial punishment of wilful murder is the symbol of a commitment. Paradoxically, it constitutes for everyone trustworthy evidence of the enduring value that society places on innocent human life. It is no doubt for this reason that capital punishment has been endorsed by those great religious systems whose primary mission has been the awakening of humanity’s capacity for love and mercy. That it can be abused by evil or careless men in no way detracts from the essential role it plays in the moral order.

However, as far as the long term development of civilization is concerned, capital punishment is only an historical stop-gap measure and not a replacement for the larger project of establishing a new paideia, as the UHJ has also explained:

[H]uman beings are responsible for their actions. […] Where educational methods alone fail to induce in individuals behavioral change that respects the laws protecting society, civil authority has the right to resort to coercive measures. […] Increasingly, however, the discussion has moved beyond these practical and humanitarian concerns to a deeper moral level. It is here, the Baha’i community believes, that the real issue lies.

So in other words, there’s a strong case to be made philosophically that bin Laden should have received capital punishment. In this regard, I’m not per se bothered that he died as a direct result of his role in September 11.

However did bin Laden actually receive capital punishment? It doesn’t seem like it at all. To begin with, my brief Facebook status update (“Bin Laden’s dead. Mixed feelings. On the one hand, justice has finally been served. On the other hand, I’m tired of all the violence related to this man and his ideology.”) aroused what were, in my opinion, some insightful responses from friends and colleagues, including this one by an old classmate:

Leo Schwartz: What concerns me are the celebrations. They feel less like celebrations of justice rightly served and more like the satiating of bloodlust. When we conflate the two, all sorts of bad things tend to happen.

And then there was this e-mail from my dear friend Ryan McShefferey, who is one of the most interesting thinkers I know given that he actually studies the Anglophonic judicial system and the North American response to global Islamic terrorism from a philosophical perspective:

Well, the events of the last twenty four hours have confirmed my belief that the moral sentiment behind the death penalty is alive and well in the West, even if it is in the extra-judicial military context. I can’t believe all the people that are so sure Bin Laden *deserved* death!

I think Leo and Ryan’s remarks hit the nail on the head: there’s more raw emotionality than a sense of legal necessity behind bin Laden’s death. As more information about how the raid emerges, in which it’s been revealed that he was unarmed, it looks like — frankly speaking — that my homeland murdered the man.

To be fair, there was a possibility he might have had a bomb, although Navy Seals who had the soundness of mind to continue operating after a helicopter crash and calmly collect DVDs, hard drives and papers probably could also see that this wasn’t the case. As for US Attorney General Eric Holder’s claim that the assassination was “an act of national self-defence” is also logical considering the resources and position of bin Laden, but it nevertheless commits the conceptual danger of militarizing an individual, as though his very existence posed an existential threat.

Finally, the BBC’s Marc Mardell accurately points out that for many outside America there will be concerns that this was just savage cowboyism:

“[O]f course there is the suspicion that the US never wanted to take Bin Laden alive. […] I suspect there will be more worry about this in Britain and Europe than in the US. That doesn’t mean we are right or wrong. It is a cultural difference. We are less comfortable about frontier justice, less forgiving about even police shooting people who turn out to be unarmed, perhaps less inculcated with the Dirty Harry message that arresting villains is for wimps, and real justice grows from the barrel of a gun. Many in America won’t be in the slightest bit bothered that a mass murderer got what was coming to him swiftly, whether he was trying to kill anyone in that instant or not.”

Actually, I think it’s more likely that the Obama Administration wanted to avoid putting him on trial for two very logical reasons — but short-sighted ones nonetheless, ones that should have been contested: the concern of Saddam Hussein-style grandstanding and risking terrorist attacks on civilian and judicial targets, of the “Free Our Sheikh” variety.

I think either way, bin Laden would have won the public relations battle: either executed or put on trial, he would have been a martyr, at least to those who are of his mindset. Obama et al must have also figured this, so I would guess that the more likely fear would have been of terrorist reprisals: get rid of the man quickly to minimize future casualties.

I respect that reasoning, but my logic is different, even perhaps chilling: putting bin Laden on trial would have only been about justice at one level and really been about sending a message, to the Muslim world and to history, about what it means to be a civilized society. My countrymen have consistently failed to realize that the struggle with radical Islamism is not a war they can win physically, but only philosophically — all of the tiny battles along the way shall almost always turn to the radicals’ favor precisely because they are motivated by a totalizing system of thought that can bend any fact to its purposes. The only hope is to out-manoeuvre that system among its potential recruitment pool in the Muslim polity itself by providing facts in the form of ethical and consistent behavior, of a better, more humane alternative system.

And here’s the cold turn in my own reasoning: toward that end, the United States should be willing to accept casualties in the attempt to send that message and to promote that system. We should have faith in the long term truth of universal human rights to be able to withstand with fortitude whatever horrors may be inflicted upon us for that faith. In other words, we should meet the radical Islamists’ martyrdoms with our own counter-martyrdoms.

Since George W. Bush in the aftermath of September 11th told Americans to basically stay at home and spend more credit, I’ve taken my homeland’s leadership to task for not calling society to make true and meaningful self-reflection and sacrifice. The Bush Administration loved to compare the struggle with radical Islamism to that of the Second World War, but the comparison was totally empty, as that generation actually suffered and gave up much to win their cause. It looks like the Obama Administration is little better in this regard, despite all its talk of service and high ideals.

I’ll wrap up with my final radical proposal of what should have been: even had we put bin Laden on trial, we should not have executed him, anyway. Yes, that means the American taxpayer would have been paying to keep a mass murderer alive and with better healthcare than the average citizen, but again, it would be to send that message.

All told, I’m essentially re-conceptualizing Gandhi’s notion of satyagraha minus its rigidly non-violent aspect. Americans underestimate the extent to which poverty, and not just material poverty, but intellectual and spiritual poverty, has been fuelling radical Islamism. As we’ve seen in North Africa, Muslim peoples want meaningful and just change, and we should be working harder to convince them — in our actions — that such a change can only come with universal ideals, not the kind of relativized ones so often promulgated by corruption and extremism.

So, there you have it. Am I right? I’d like to know your thoughts. Please leave a comment below. And on a personal note: of course, making a call for consistency is easy, actually doing it, on an individual scale (look at some of my own behaviors, intellectual and interpersonal, for example), much less on a national scale, is extremely difficult. Nevertheless, I believe this is the only real course of action that can lead to a maximum positive result for humanity.


2 thoughts on “Counter-martyrdom and the trial of bin Laden

  1. the blood lust in the celebrations of OBL’s death was obvious, and disgusting.

    american culture encourages some very problematic delusions, you have touched on some of them, but not all.

    all the people celebrating should watch the end of the movie “Charlie Wilson’s War” so they realize how america’s delusions are a factor in the whole mess.

  2. hey, very good analytical piece on the common sense myth around eurocentric justice system. it’s kind of frustrating that all these events and practices are leading to the stronger strengthening of these recognition-based systems that encourage death penalty as morally deserved punishment.

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