A very thoughtful column from friend of the Chaplaincy, Charlie Clark, class of 2011.
Clark: A Cowboy Brand of Justice
By Charles Clark, Staff Columnist
Published on Monday, May 9, 2011
Already, two of my fellow columnists, Louis Wheatley ’14 and Brendan Woods ’13, have confronted the “objectors” (“A Shotgun for Bin Laden,” May 3) and “armchair philosophers” (“Laden with Questions,” May 5) who would call into question the killing of Osama bin Laden. The rush to shield his assassination from any sort of scrutiny comes as no surprise. In the increasingly cynical style of U.S. foreign policy, all sorts of evils have become necessary. From detentions without habeas corpus at Guantanamo Bay, to the kill order on American citizen Anwar Al-Awlaki, now to the assassination of an unarmed man in front of his 12-year-old daughter, the American ideal of justice has been stretched to the breaking point. The debate may just be getting started, but it’s also long overdue.
Before I begin, let me state that I agree that the celebrations that erupted following President Obama’s announcement Sunday night were focused not primarily on Bin Laden’s death but on what his death meant for the United States and for the world. I acknowledge that his death symbolizes an appropriate end to the events set in motion on Sept. 11, as well as a significant blow to Al Qaeda. But what does the American people’s reaction to his death say about us?
Perhaps we are all in agreement that Osama bin Laden was an evil man, that he deserved to die and that we can all rest easier now that he’s dead. The fact remains, however, that killing an unarmed man, untried and unconvicted by any jury, falls far short of the standard of American justice.
While we may believe his end was just, the manner in which Osama bin Laden died nevertheless constituted a clear breach of the rule of law, which, in the United States at least, holds that the same procedure is followed in every case in pursuit of equal justice. The rule of law means that there is a set plan for the treatment of each violator of our laws, however trifling or heinous his crime. And when, for whatever reason, that plan is not followed, it is not a cause for rejoicing. Perhaps Bin Laden could not have been taken alive and tried. Perhaps he forced our hand and chose his own death rather than submit to American justice. But if that is so, then in his own petty way, Bin Laden had the last laugh. By provoking us to break our own rules in order to bring him to justice, he showed the world the cracks in our system. He showed that while American power may be inescapable, our ideals can be bent and our will to treat even our enemies with civility and equality can be broken.
The astonishing fact is that this small but significant defeat has gone virtually unnoticed by the American people. Osama bin Laden and his ilk — murderers who have no love of justice, who would usher in a new era of lawlessness and disorder — are winning the battle for our hearts and minds. They are bringing us down to their level. In the hurt and confusion wrought by terror, we have found a new enthusiasm for frontier justice. We have a new passion not for the law but for the lawman. We have rediscovered our admiration for the gunslinger, someone dealing his own brand of justice, confident in his own strength and moral authority. The vigilante has returned as the preeminent American folk hero, Jack Bauer and Batman alongside Rooster Cogburn and Wyatt Earp.
But this is no time for cowboys. The conflict in which we are presently engaged is fought to determine the terms of modernity — the rules of engagement in our new globalized society. Al Qaeda and its allies have made clear the kind of world they are building, a world in which anarchy is never more than an IED away. We cannot allow them to goad us into compromising our values. Justice and honor are not our shackles — they are our strength. And this is the strength that we must set an example of for the whole world. So, let’s drop the cowboy act: no more assassinations, no more imprisonment without trial. It’s a disgrace, and that’s one thing we can’t afford.