The Question of Justice
I typically make it a point not to engage in debates on politics. If there’s a chance that the discussion will turn heated, I will almost always smile benignly and hold my silence—especially if what I could say is likely to give others premature cardiac arrest. It isn’t worth having a conversation or “friendly debate” on issues that make it entirely too easy for the words to veer from respectful dissent to personal attack. If the argument isn’t over an issue of immediate importance, then I’d rather save both my energy and the friendship. That being said, sometimes things happen that I can’t sit by and idly watch. Tonight is one of the rare times where it’s important to me to risk igniting words of anger for the opportunity to express my own opinions.
By now, I doubt there are many Americans at all who do not know that Osama bin Laden is dead. At about five til ten Sunday night, I saw the bulletin on the bottom of the television screen announcing that he was dead; then I listened attentively to the President’s speech. I felt no desire to jump up and down on the lawn of the capital, I didn’t feel the need to laugh out loud and break out a bag of Hershey kisses to celebrate. My first instinctive reaction was somber. At first, I mistook my own emotion for one of sadness until I realized that ‘sadness’ wasn’t really the right word. I was just overcome with somber remembrance. Such evil. Such terror. Such suffering, fear and traumatizing, life-altering sadness had he designed. My memories were tempered with other emotions, too. For one, I was relieved and, irrational though it is (after all, his henchmen are still alive and well), I feel just a smidge safer. Safer in my own home, safer in my own country. Again, I realize that that’s irrational: bin Laden’s followers are quite capable of leading a terrorist attack on the United States. I realize that. Still—an avid student of the Holocaust, Hitler taught me that terrorists drive the people, motivate them with impassioned speeches, encourage them in an almost paternal, yet firm, way and, worst of all, firmly instill in them the extremist beliefs that allow them to perpetrate unspeakable acts of terror. If the leader of a cult is killed, history shows that, sometimes, the cult stumbles, then crashes. So, while I understand the threat is not eliminated, I still felt safer.
But, the somber feeling of sadness lingered. Instead of bursting with joy, a sizable part of me just wanted to cry. At the time, sitting in front of the television, I wasn’t sure why. I worried that feeling sad at such a long anticipated news report was somehow anti-American or, worse, some kind of betrayal to the victims of 9-11 and/or to the men and women who have so diligently defended my freedom from the likes of al Qaeda. Like every other American, I truly wanted the man responsible for 3,000 precious lives to pay for what he’d masterminded on our shores. Like every other American, I was offended, hurt and deeply saddened over the horrific events of September 11. Like every other American old enough to comprehend the gravity of the event, I will never forget where I was and what I was doing on that September morning. Alan Jackson’s song, “Where Were You (When the World Stopped Turning)?” still makes me cry. I stood in a ridiculously long, quiet line to give blood because I didn’t want to do nothing while people in my own country were so terribly hurt. Like every other American, I wanted someone to take responsibility for it.
I wanted justice.
Justice. That was the word that the President said in his speech Sunday night: “justice has been served.” Justice. As I turned the word over and over in my head again and again, I realized that that was the word that was stumping me.
The world thinks that justice has been served. I have nothing against President Obama. Once someone is elected to an office, it is my responsibility, both as a Christian and as a citizen, to support, pray for and otherwise respect the person holding that office—whether I voted for him or not. Furthermore, I don’t think this was an “election ploy” and, even if it was, who would really care? The result is still the same: Osama, dead; justice, served. So, I’m disturbed not because I don’t like Obama. I don’t care who gets the “credit” (frankly, no one person deserves “credit” or “blame” for the death of that man). Instead, I’m uneasy because I’m afraid that the word “justice” can too easily be confused for the word “healed.”
I was in the ninth grade. I was a shy kid who kept her nose in a book, a pen in her hand, her mouth closed, her eyes zeroed in on the teacher. I went to class, I went home. No parties, no drugs, no alcohol, no boys (indeed, my fantasy “heroes” were limited to the ones in the books I read and created; I wanted to marry Landon Montgomery, the hero in one of my own creations). And yet, that year, for some inexplicable reason, I was the target of three horrible bullies. These three girls made my life miserable. They took a page of the book I was writing, crumbled it up and threw it in the trash. They poured catsup on a sanitary pad, stuck it to the classroom television and told the teacher I did it (which was traumatizing, since my number one goal in life was to avoid trouble with the teacher). They laughed about my clothes. They pretended to be nice one minute, because I would respond when they were, and then the next, laugh in my face at my gullibility. They did everything but physically hit me. I’m reminded of them tonight.
What would “justice” have been for them? To be kicked out of the class, since it was an elective? To be suspended? To be forced to apologize to me? What would any of this have accomplished? They would have been reprimanded, and it might have made the rest of my year more tolerable. But nothing the principal or my teacher could have done, had I decided to speak up, would have taken away the pain that had already been inflicted. Perhaps they deserved punishment. Perhaps they deserved “justice.” I’m sure there would have been legitimate reasons to interrupt their reign of terror—perhaps it would have discouraged them from treating another the way they treated me. But I didn’t care about justice. I just wanted to be left alone. I didn’t care whether or not they were hurt. I just longed to avoid pain. Instead of spending my energy on ensuring that they were punished, I instead focused on finding ways to smile despite them. I dreaded going to that class but, as soon as the period was over, I found other things to occupy my thoughts because I didn’t want to give them power over me.
A year or two ago, there was a news story about this woman. She’s grown now but when she was a teenager, she was abused by a relative who now lives in another country. The United States was seeking to extradite him back to America so that he could spend time in prison for the horrible thing he did to a child. The prosecutors wanted to secure justice. A little girl had been violated, robbed of innocence; she’d done nothing wrong, and now the prosecutors wanted to defend her; they wanted to turn back the clock and offer her protection; they wanted to try and restore some of her lost sense of safety. Instead of accepting that, though, the girl, now a young woman, requested that the proceedings be stopped and that the man be allowed to live abroad. She wasn’t interested in finding justice, not even for herself. All she wanted was to be left alone. She wanted to spend her time doing things that would give her joy rather than spending more energy on someone who wasn’t going to apologize and who wasn’t going to ever do anything but cause her pain. She didn’t want justice. Besides, think of the prosecutors and the news reporters. They seemed noble, they were fighting for the right, moral reasons. A crime had been committed, he deserved to pay. But on whom were they focusing? Assume the man had been extradited back to the US, convicted and sentenced to jail. What would have happened after the sentencing? The prosecutors would have believed that their job was done, and time had come for healing. After justice is served, after all, nothing else is required to heal. Right?
For so many reasons, that question haunts me.
As human beings, we want solutions to problems. If there’s mice in our house, we want to find the most effective, quick and humane traps with which to eliminate them. If we don’t have money for something we need, like medicine, we rack our brains until we come up with a solution. Once we find a solution to a problem, we feel that our responsibility has been met and that it’s okay to turn and walk away. People do that with justice. They see someone who has been hurt, they see someone who was trapped and they want to do what’s right, but they don’t know how to cure the emotional pain so, instead, they focus on doing what they can: serving justice. They capture or punish the one responsible for the heartbreak and then they celebrate, saying, “Nothing more to fear” without ever realizing that the greatest fear of all isn’t the villain, it’s the pain that already exists.
Don’t misunderstand me: of course, it isn’t wrong to pursue justice. As I said, I’m relieved that bin Laden is dead. And before I say something that causes more harm than good for those whose lives were forever altered that morning, I’ll add that sometimes seeing justice served out is necessary before some victims are able to move on. It is important to show those who are hurting that they are important enough, that they are worth enough, for us to work tirelessly to capture the one responsible for the pain. Knowing that someone will back you up, defend and protect, is a critical piece of the healing puzzle. Yet, my caution is that it is only one piece of the puzzle. For some victims, the death of bin Laden almost certainly serves as proof that their loss wasn’t forgotten, and that’s a powerful thing. So, bin Laden’s death isn’t a bad thing. If I had to classify it as good or bad, it would, indeed, be a good and right thing. But his death isn’t enough. I think it’s safe to assume that what most, if not all, of the victims of 9-11 really want is people to remember their loved ones; I assume that they don’t want their loss forgotten, because it was so traumatizing and horrific and staggering. I’m sure they are celebrating the death of the one who caused their suffering but, once the initial joy wanes—what are they going to be left with? The same thing that they were before: memories of a loved one who can’t sit at the dinner table with them anymore. How then did the death of bin Laden in and of itself create healing? Is it justice, or is it revenge? And if I celebrate because I’ve exacted revenge, no matter how warranted it might have been, how much closer does that put me to becoming more like the one whose obituary makes me smile? Again, bin Laden deserved to pay for his crimes. My only question is—now that he has, what remains? Is the scar smaller? Is the absence less? Justice may have been served but what real difference does that make, if it doesn’t take the pain away?
Someone showed me a picture today. It had Osama’s head in Lady Liberty’s hand. It was a striking image, one that hypocritically left me feeling a moment’s perverse satisfaction, but then it left me with a more lasting feeling of discomfort. While I am proud that we defend our people, while I am proud of all that we have accomplished in the war and proud that we finally brought down the man responsible for it, while I am relieved and very proud that our nation doesn’t forget when our own are harmed, I remember a quote from Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr that said, “”I mourn the loss of thousands of precious lives, but I will not rejoice in the death of one, not even an enemy. Returning hate for hate multiplies hate, adding deeper darkness to a night already devoid of stars. Darkness cannot drive out darkness: only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate: only love can do that.”
I am relieved that Osama is dead, but the knowledge doesn’t make me want to party or throw confetti in the air. Instead, it serves as a somber reminder that evil will always exist in the world and that my responsibility to my hurt friend and American isn’t fully accomplished. If it’s needed, I can now quietly and somberly offer the death of bin Laden as a way to find closure for those most deeply impacted by his reign of terror. But, otherwise, all I really want to do is look at the stranger who, I know, was hurt and saddened like I was on September 11, 2001 and ask, “Can I have a hug?”