What Justice Is

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Every time I’ve written about morality, I’ve received strong, polarized reactions, and I imagine this time will be no different.  But as we’ve all been afforded an opportunity to reexamine—and perhaps redefine—our concept of justice with the recent killing of Osama bin Laden, despite my trepidation, I feel compelled to share my thoughts.

For me, the tragedy of 9/11 was perhaps slightly more personal than for many as I knew someone who was in the first plane that struck the World Trade Center. In all fairness, we were more acquaintances than good friends, but when I heard the news he’d been killed in the attack, I had two distinct reactions.  First, a stark image came into my mind of what his last few moments might have been like, adrenaline surging through me as I pictured the fear he must have felt knowing he was about to die—followed by my imagining of what I hope was only a split second of searing pain as his body was vaporized by the explosion.  Second, like most people I know, I became angry.

It was a righteous anger, rising up not out of a desire to feel powerful or wrest back control that had been somehow stolen from me, but rather from my indignation at what I considered an almost inconceivable injustice.

At the time I had no thought of it, but since bin Laden’s death, I’ve been wondering just where my notion of justice came from and how I learned it.  I’d always presumed it had come from the way I’d been raised.  But now research is beginning to suggest that human beings are actually endowed with an innate sense of fairness from birth.  In David Brooks’ book The Social Animal, he writes:

“Yale professor Paul Bloom and others conducted an experiment in which they showed babies a scene featuring one figure struggling to climb a hill, another figure trying to help it, and a third trying to hinder it.  At as early as six months, the babies showed a preference for the helper over the hinderer.  In some plays, there was a second act.  The hindering figure was either punished or rewarded.  In this case, the eight-month-olds preferred a character who was punishing the hinderer over ones being nice to it.”

In other words, the Biblical concept of “an eye for an eye” may very well have its origins not in culture but neurology.  Which brings me to the central point I want to make:  when all is said and done, perhaps our concept of justice is nothing more than a way to legitimize our desire for revenge. Perhaps we attach to justice the connotations of “right” and “good” simply to make ourselves feel better about our need to balance the scales.

Balancing the scales certainly does feel emotionally satisfying.  But consider the following thought experiment:  suppose we were to develop a technology that enabled us to awaken in people who demonstrated little to no capacity for it a strong sense of revulsion to seeing others suffer?  Not by a method akin to the approach depicted in the movie A Clockwork Orange in which sociopath Alex (no relation) was made to feel physically ill each time he witnessed violence through classical conditioning, but rather through a humane method that brought to life dormant feelings of decency, compassion, and wisdom.  What if we’d been able to turn bin Laden into an honest-to-goodness Gandhi?

My point isn’t to leave reality behind here or to suggest that a technology that could bring about this result will ever be possible, but rather to deconstruct the elements that give rise to our instinctive revulsion to evil and what constitutes justice in responding to it.  If bin Laden had truly been able to see the error of his ways, to suffer horribly for his crimes at the hands of his own conscience, and perhaps had wanted to dedicate his life to making reparations (as repentant felons in our prisons have been occasionally known to do), would we have felt punishing him was the just thing to do?

I’m sure many of us still would.  But I wonder if punishing people for the crimes they commit, apart from the practical side effect of protecting the rest of us, actually represents good.  Does anyone ever deserve to suffer?  I’m sure many people would answer yes, but I’m still struggling to agree.  Does bin Laden’s role as the mastermind of 9/11 make it so impossible to remember he was once a three-year-old boy himself who, much like my own son, wanted nothing more than a hug from his mom and a smile from his dad (or who could have had he grown up in different circumstances)?  I know to even entertain these thoughts will appall many who are rightly concerned more with the lives he cut short than with the theoretical traumas of his childhood or his indoctrination into morally abhorrent beliefs (e.g., kill the infidel).  But next to my relief that he’s gone lies a sense of sadness that the little boy he once was (or might have been) grew into a man we had to kill.

And we did have to kill him.  Or capture and imprison him.  Not, from my point of view, because such actions necessarily represent justice, but rather because from the obvious and practical perspective that he needed to be stopped.  I confess I too wanted him punished.  I too wanted him to suffer.  But I find myself uncomfortable with the notion that my desire for revenge was just.

Perhaps we can’t escape our innate sense that when one of us hurts another, we must balance the scales by hurting them.  And because of confirmation bias, we can’t help but explain this desire to ourselves in a way that justifies it (as I wrote in a previous post, The True Cause Of Cruelty, we do the same thing in order to go to war).  Certainly protecting ourselves from dangerous people is a necessary expedient.  But I keep returning to what the Buddha is said to have answered when asked if it was permissible to kill:  “It’s enough to kill the will to kill,” he said, which I interpret to mean that if killing becomes necessary, to feel joy in it is to avoid recognizing the humanity of our fellow human beings—and therefore to diminish the humanity in ourselves.

Killing or imprisoning Bin Laden might have been a necessary evil, but I regret such an evil was necessary.  I regret that forces and ideas continue to exist that drive some of us to think that we should, in certain circumstances, deliberately hurt our fellow human beings.  I’m not so naive as to imagine these forces or ideas will ever disappear, or that we aren’t right to think in terms of “us” vs. “them” (“them” being anyone who wants to hurt “us”).  But to exult in causing harm to others—even if we think they deserve it or that it represents justice, or even if we understand the psychological value of such exultation (it’s arguably cathartic for the national consciousness and for the families and friends of 9/11 victims)—strikes me as one way to take a definitive step away from a truly just and peaceful world.  I keep thinking instead of a world in which in our collective response to evil, after the shock and hurt of being victimized and losing loved ones has worn off, and after we’ve taken definitive steps to condemn it, to stand against it, and to make ourselves safe from it, is to take pity on those who commit it, remembering our shared humanity.  Not that I’m arguing in any way that we should allow our pity to soften our response.  We shouldn’t.  But if we reserve our pity only for people we like, I wonder if we’re truly living our very best lives.  I suppose few will understand what I mean by this, but the longer I live and the more I learn, the more I think evil is just another word for confused.

Next WeekThe Neurology of Near Death Experiences

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  • Great post, Alex!

    Mike: Thanks.

  • Thank you for expressing so eloquently the ambivalence that I also feel about the whole thing.

  • Really thoughtful and very good. I still hope we don’t find ourselves overgeneralizing and giving “confirmation bias” too much explanatory power.

  • Thanks for sharing your thoughts on this, Alex. My religious belief is to harm no one (Wiccan). However, I grew up in NYC, spent 2 months working down at ground zero and knew many who were murdered on that day. I did have a great amount of relief, filled with pride for what our soldiers accomplished and for the first time in a long time remembered the good times I had with those that passed followed by some internal searching about what causes such evil in this world. Thanks for this writing!

  • One of your best posts! I have been struggling with this same issue for the past week—and you have described my dilemma so well. Thank you!

  • Your post is one of many I have seen in the days following Bin Laden’s assassination that acknowledge that there was a need to eliminate a threat by killing him, but expressing the idea that it was wrong for people to experience joy as a result. This prohibition against a natural response is akin to reasoning that it’s okay to have sex, but it’s improper to enjoy it. Absurd!

    If people are born with an innate sense of fairness, and I believe they are, it is because the desire for justice supports humans’ ability to live in communities. Just because the desire may have its origins in neurology does not make it somehow lesser. Ask yourself if Buddha could have imagined the many acts against humanity committed by Bin Laden and his brethren in the name of a twisted interpretation of Islam. Somehow, I doubt it. Deterrence and protection of society are perfectly valid reasons to punish those who kill. This is not to suggest that all persons who commit murder should be killed. Bin Laden was not just a common criminal. He was a guiding and yes, evil force. Neither justice nor revenge were possible in this case. What punishment could possibly be in kind for all the pain and suffering Bin Laden caused? None that I know of.

    An act that is “just” is one that is lawful. Justice is the disposition of legal matters to render every man his due. Even killing Bin Laden could not balance the scales, but it was the closest we could come. It’s natural to wonder why Bin Laden became the man he did. But there is no call to pity any man to steps beyond hatred to killing thousands of innocent strangers. Even if one does find room to pity that man, to feel relief, joy, even exultation because we are one large step closer to being a “just and peaceful world” as a result of his death is not untoward. It is a recognition of what is right and good.

  • I too have wondered about that 3 year old that Bin Laden once was, and what became of him. And why Bin Laden could not feel the same empathy for Americans, Europeans and non-Muslims as he obviously could for Muslims. It is quite an enigma.

  • Alex, I have been holding my breath, waiting for you to write about this. Justice v. revenge is so much to the point! Thank you for your clarity on justice v. revenge.

    “Necessary evil,” sadly and aptly, seems the right term for what we have been caught up on for the 10 years of our bin Laden man-hunt.

    This morning in the NYT, Haidt, a social psychologist addresses this cheering-at-a-man’s-death:

    For the last 50 years, many evolutionary biologists have told us that we are little different from other primates—we’re selfish creatures, able to act altruistically only when it will benefit our kin or our future selves. But in the last few years there’s been a growing recognition that humans, far more than other primates, were shaped by natural selection acting at two different levels simultaneously. There’s the lower level at which individuals compete relentlessly with other individuals within their own groups. This competition rewards selfishness.

    But there’s also a higher level at which groups compete with other groups. This competition favors groups that can best come together and act as one. Only a few species have found a way to do this. Bees, ants and termites are the best examples. Their brains and bodies are specialized for working as a team to accomplish nearly miraculous feats of cooperation like hive construction and group defense.

    Haidt is making a case for “group defense,” I think, when he says that the cheering was group effervescence.

    Haidt doesn’t say that functioning on these 2 levels may cause us to feel inner conflict. But, of course, we DO feel inner conflict, as you describe in your post.

    Perhaps our inner conflicts will slow us down, and force us to analyze our positions about war, war criminals, justice, revenge, group defense. And maybe we will be more enlightened afterwords. Your post has contributed to my own sense of dawning enlightenment, Alex. Thank you for writing about this in such a “fair and unbiased” way.

    It is Mother’s Day, by the way, and I needed to begin teaching my son about the values that have surfaced in this momentous week, which involved killing a man. Your post helped a mom find a way to couch her (ongoing) teaching for her son. I want him to be an ethical human being and compassionate. And I know I must also acknowledge “justice” and “revenge” when I talk with him about this.

    Thanks. I sense that you agonized a bit about this. Thanks again.

    Chris: I’m glad you found the post helpful. I did agonize about this. Emotions run strong for many people both ways, including me.


  • Alex, you expressed the way I feel about it to. I’m scared by Siobhan’s response. I wonder what OBL’s parents were like. Your’s or Siobhan’s.

  • Alex, this is the most perceptive and humane response to a killing and the orchestrated hysteria and rejoicing around that act. Thank you very much, Alex. I write it from an eastern culture, not very far from where he was killed. Imagine, the SEALS deliberately wound bin Laden (which they could easily do and not kill him as directed by the sense of revenge of a nation and “wronged” humanity) and airlift him back to an operation theater in New York. As he bleeds, he is allowed an option of blood transfusion from an infidel for a chance to live. It would be interesting to see how he responds to an infidel’s blood for a chance to live. If he accepts it, there surely would have been some reaction to his closed mind of hatred. If he didn’t then maybe he would have been anyways given an infidel’s blood (and that could have been a child female infidel donor) and shown the child as his savior. Again, it would have been a profoundly mind-altering experience. No matter how hateful a person is, if he/she is faced with certain death and a humane act is carried out to save that person from certain death, it is perhaps the most revolutionary act of a human mind—the acme of human sublimity.

    Alex, you have done a great service to open our eyes and hearts. I am a regular reader of your columns from the other side of the world. May you and your family and loved ones always be bestowed with good health and joy and you continue to provide such accessible wisdom. Thank you once again.


    Sudip: Thanks for your comment. I like the notion that some radical experience might have injected some humanity into bin Laden’s thinking, but personally I doubt the scenario you outlined would have done so. Even the most twisted thinking can be untwisted—but rarely, if ever, by an experience or series of experiences that anyone predicts or tries to engineer. One can always hope, however.


  • Alex, thanks again for another excellent post. I’m always fascinated with the interaction between biology/physical characteristics and behavior/sociology, and am glad to read about it so often on your blog.

    “Revenge” is, in classical criminal law, one of the classical justifications for punishment. (Another is prevention [general and specific].)

  • In the US and various other countries around the world, it seems quite “normal” to execute criminals. If bin Laden was executed under direct order from President Obama (not unthinkable as this is “normal” in the US) then I don’t consider this justice, but a step backward in the process of civilization. (But my initial gut reaction was also one of relief, I have to admit.)

  • Thank you Mr. Lickerman, for speaking so eloquently on an issue writ large these days that I face every day in some small way.

    This morning, as my ailing feline companion lay weakening, I hurt with inexplicable human compassion. I retreat to another room to cry. There, after a good jag, I look up to see a stink bug on the window sill. I feel my gut turn in revulsion.

    In a flash I realize how absurd it is, my “random” valuing of one life over another. Here I am in full diametric opposition, bleeding heart over “my” cat and about ready to flush “that” stink bug down the toilet.

    I imagine my right-brain/left-brain connection flickering back and forth: “What do I connect with, what is an extension of or part of the definition of me,” on one hand (or hemisphere). And, on the other hand/hemisphere, where do I draw the boundary and consider something/someone “other”? I find this to be very elastic and curious.

    A shoot-from-the-hip answer to these questions is that a lot depends on which I feed. In other words, by spending a lot of “positivity time” with and focused on someone/something cultivates my connection and inclusion of him/her/it in my definition of me/myself. I would have to consider that the same is true with feeding my hate/revulsion, and acting reflexively to “out” the offending him/her/it in some way (distancing myself or aggressing toward/eliminating).

    At the microscopic level I am making billions of life/death decisions every time I wash my hands—a lot as I’m in health care. Every germ and bug-kill decision, every meat-eating decision, even every garden-weeding decision… I barely even think about these “random killings.” If it were more in the focus of my life, like my Buddhist friends, I would be more conscious of the Vishnu/Shiva in me and every other being with the power of life and death over others. How can I escape the truth that every day I am the maker of worlds and the destroyer of worlds based on what I deem beneficial to me?

    I can call on myself to inhabit a larger mind, and to recognize, over and over again, that my small mind likes to drive the tank of self-preservation. A larger mind gives me “altitude” and perspective…broader vision that I am inextricably interconnected (where do I draw the line?), and that I am widely responsible for my actions, the myriad consequences I cannot even fathom.

    Right intention, then, is a key factor, which I find I must constantly wake up to (where’s that alarm clock set to go off every minute or so?), and actually cultivate, since my small mind (me/body/unit) seems to be my default.

    From studying some mind-body science texts I have gained some small understanding of what’s actually going on in my brain surrounding these “decisions” from a structural, physiologic and neurochemical perspective. It’s very complex! This as one way I use to keep an eye on my habitual responses to life (which, as the saying goes, “comes at you fast”). Another would be to dust off my old meditation cushion and to listen-and-let-go-of what I’m thinking…I have lost touch…I don’t even know what thoughts are driving my decisions and actions these days! (gasp! I’m tempted to say “unconscionable,” though “unconscious” will do just as well.)

    Thank you Mr. Lickerman, your post has ripples…

    Would love to hear how others attend to these concerns…

    Many thanks….

  • Thank you for your discussion of the complex subject of justice. I had struggled with my feelings about the spontaneous celebrations after the death of bin Laden was announced. “Unseemly” came to mind as I watched on television. This man was responsible for horrific violence against innocents around the world, and changed our lives forever. His death does not reverse this, but, as you point out, it was necessary to stop him.

    I also struggle with the concepts of evil and self-responsibility, and where the line is between evil and insane. We know that childhood experiences cause cascades of neurotransmitters that can alter the programming in the brain. We also know that the brains of criminals often do not look like the brains of the “normal” population. Does that empathic and cooperative 8-month old brain still exist in the criminal? Is this why soldiers have such trouble adjusting life after combat?

    In my work as a physical therapist, I incorporate energy work, which requires me to fully accept and care about the whole person I am treating. Sometimes they have been gang members or even extreme right-wingers. The most valuable advice I was given in a workshop was to picture the person as a child, innocent and vulnerable, and to hold that image as I work with them. I feel sad to think of the life experiences that led to the creation of bin Laden. I wonder if I could have summoned the compassion to treat him.

  • Just simply… thank you.

  • This conversation reminds me of a question that came up at a retreat I attended, where one retreatant asked how any form of compassion could be offered toward a man like Hitler. The teacher responded that Hitler was “profoundly unconscious,” and that something must have happened to him early in life that caused him to become separate from others.

    To me, this felt like a very wise response and perhaps explanation of how a man could have committed such heinous acts toward other human beings. Could we think the same of Mr. bin Laden?

    Judy: I very much like that phrase. It gets at what I meant by the last line of my post.


  • Alex,

    You asked (rhetorically) whether “if punishing people for the crimes they commit, apart from the practical side effect of protecting the rest of us, actually represents good. Does anyone ever deserve to suffer?”

    It seems to me that your question implicitly acknowledges a divide between practicality and emotion as motivations for taking adverse actions. I doubt that justice can ever be directly served by actions based on revenge. But if civilization “actually represents a good” (a notion that, I suppose, the jury is still out on), then even acts that are not proximately protective in nature may be so if they are crucial toward building a civil society. This is why civil societies insist that justice be meted out by the government (hopefully, with full due process) rather than allowing individuals, families, tribes, etc., to take matters into their own hands.

    So, does anyone deserve to suffer? Not at my hands (acting as an individual) but perhaps anyone deserves punishment (or to be “neutralized”) if their acts are destructive of civil society. Then, if I act as an instrument of civil society and do so without vengeance, then perhaps I might commit punishment without fault. Can the hangman kill with compassion? I think its possible.

    Of course, a philosophy of punishment as a social good, when institutionalized, constitutes a slippery slope. History is filled with examples of “the authorities” wreaking punishment on those who are merely different (progroms, Inquisition, Holocaust, slavery, etc.). And a too strict posture toward protecting civil society can quickly degenerate into protecting the status quo. Even in its milder forms, such overreaching will easily kill “creative destruction” that might contribute to social betterment.

    So no easy answers. But satisfaction in punishing someone is probably a clear indication that one’s motives are suspect. But as you said, “Killing or imprisoning bin Laden may have been a necessary evil, but I regret such an evil was necessary.” I think this is the right conclusion.

    So be at peace.

  • Thank you for your post, Alex. It is very well articulated, even when the concept itself is rather nuanced.

    There is an imagery that I often use to remind myself of what you are suggesting. I see the evil murderous people in the world as limbs of my body that have been struck by gangrene. At that point, it is only logical that I cut off that part of my body, to protect the rest. But I don’t think I will feel happy to about doing it, only feeling that I have done what is necessary. The chopped off limb could have served me well had things only happened differently, but sadly they didn’t, and one has to do what one has to do.

    Empowerment Engineer: I like that idea a lot.


  • There was no imminent need to kill OBL. We are a country of laws, and we have laws for dealing with terrorists and criminals. Our actions from the beginning of these wars has been cowboy-like and not befitting a nation of treaties and laws. It is my own country that I mourn for losing so much in the way of civilized conduct and civil liberties.

    We will be exploring this @ our blog, rangeragainstwar.

  • I “get it” completely. Thanks for writing it.

  • Off topic.

    But maybe not.

    Have you read about Gandhiji at Noakhali?

    Austere: A little.


  • Alex,
    Thanks for overriding your trepidation to open up a healing forum for considering this current event. You write: “It was a righteous anger, rising up not out of a desire to feel powerful or wrest back control that had been somehow stolen from me, but rather from my indignation at what I considered an almost inconceivable injustice.” … Now there’s a really interesting spiritual concept to explore, righteous anger. The Dalai Lama teaches “anger diminishes our power to distinguish right from wrong, and this ability is one of the highest human attributes. If it is lost, we are lost. Sometimes it is necessary to respond strongly, but this can be done without anger. Anger is not necessary. It has no value.” Even more succinctly, he has taught “anger is senseless.” Can only guess what more suffering is now to be brought forward by the mixed messages and motivations of last week’s, what was it now: vengeance-revenge-justice? Or as some may claim, just more of the same eye-for-an-eye till everyone’s blind from acting out their righteous anger while pursuing their definition or understanding of justice. I’d love to hear what the Dalai Lama has to say about it… can you phone him up for me?

    Much thanks for a great community you’ve assembled, where the questions are infinitely more interesting to me than any one, and absolute, message. Keep the topics flying and continued success with your writing,


  • I agree with Lisa. If bin Laden was akin to Hitler and the Nazi regime, them wound him (if necessary) and bring him to the World Court and try him. As it is I felt no relief, no joy, no justice in this killing. “We” have become as soulless as the “enemy” by disregarding our common humanity and the rule of law.

  • Alex, maybe your readers may like to read another Buddhist perspective on the killing of bin Laden. This appeared in The Guardian of UK.


  • As a result of a lot of hard work and sacrifice by a tiny percentage of American families (and our allies) with households in military, government, and law enforcement service, Osama bin Laden was killed.

    This column makes me feel a bit sad and disrespected.

    To me, bin Laden’s death made the hard work and sacrifice worth it. I got involved in fighting terror and keeping Americans safe because I wanted to do something good and serve our country. You gotta remember that this war was so sudden and young for us that we don’t always know what we’re doing. But one thing all of us set out to do was to hunt down bin Laden.

    It’s interesting being on the inside and see people talk of a supposed motivation for revenge. Sure we wanted to strike back at our enemy too, but that’s not what motivates us everyday. Revenge wouldn’t have taken me this far in my work.

    That night I felt like all my hard work had paid off in something good. But I admit it sure felt great seeing Americans out in the streets showing their patriotism, especially from the college kids. I haven’t heard that kind of widespread patriotism since 9/11.

    Rather than trying to rewrite what happened without much inside experience in this issue, a surefire good place for all this energy would be to show it toward the people who made it happen.

    Thank you.

    Cindy: I regret that my post made you feel disrespected. I feel nothing but gratitude for the people who fight terrorism. And I have little doubt their prime motivation isn’t revenge but achieving the safety of the population they’re sworn to protect. I wasn’t trying to suggest that bin Laden didn’t need to be taken out but rather that it could be done from more than one perspective; that celebrating a successful mission is a very different thing from celebrating the death of a human being. I have no complaint whatsoever with the former. It’s the latter that gives me pause.


  • Your notion of having to kill BL brings two issues to mind:

    1. The issue of who is the originator of the crime—as you know BL actions were driven by an ideology that, from his perspective, was no different to ideology of the US. The perspective of an oppressed is different from the perspective of the oppressor. Ultimately, his war is justified, in his mind, as much as the American war on terror is justified to an average American. A terrorist is just a convenient label attached to an opponent the is using unconventional mean of warfare due to asymmetrical distribution of power in a conflict. A label of a terrorist is also a weapon that allows to suspend all agreed upon conventions and agreements on how the war is to be conducted. Consequently, through the propaganda, the opponent is made to look evil and not human. Killing is not only justified but there is no the choice. The Jews of Central Europe Rebelling against the Nazis were also called terrorists by the Nazis. At the end, the violent act of the terrorist usually originates with the wrong done to him by the recipient of the terrorist act. Unfortunately, wars are fought by countries and ideologies by regular citizens that die in the process. Hence the innocent victims of wars: Japan, Drezden, London, Vietnam, 9/11, Iraq, Afg, Libia, and more to come…

    2. Contrast this with the perception of the American war machine rolling through places like Iraq or Afg. The numerous casualties are faceless and without voice. They cannot respond to the killing of their family members by drones and machines by sending a SEAL commando raid to taking out the cause of their misery. There is no evil face of the poser boy to get revenge on. The murder is the same—just like the 9/11, from the perspective of an Iraqi farmer, whose wife and children were killed in a mistaken drone bombing, the war was not invited by him.

    Does the revenge killing seem so just?

  • “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.”

    ~Martin Luther King, Jr.

  • @Chaffy P.: This quote is only partly attributable to MLK.

    The first sentence is from Penn J, a comedian . . .

    The following tells the story of how PJ made an error with copying/pasting—and this quote circled the globe as a result:


    The last 2 sentences ARE from MLK—his Christmas sermon, circa 1960.

    Not that it matters to this discussion which seems to be weighted with folk who cannot “rejoice” in the death of any person.

    If anybody wants more documentation, I can make it available.

    Chris Keller, MSN, RN

  • You are a very brave man to have opened this discussion.

    In my opinion, I would have expected a civilized nation to allow due process of law to be the only option entertained. To willfully kill another, especially one who is allegedly unarmed, is totally barbaric. To rejoice at the killing is equally vulgar. To validate the killing by the State is simply unconscionable.

  • I was quite puzzled by the report of immediate joyous gatherings after the bin Laden death was announced. I don’t know if what I learned was correct but it seemed that those making up the gatherings were largely young people. Some commented that it seemed like they were treating it like a football win. Very puzzling. I some time later tuned into This American Life, for an interview with one of the participants. What she said suddenly made perfect sense of the gatherings. They were celebrating the possibility that the Sword of Damocles that had been hanging over their heads for most if not all of their conscious lives had been removed. They thought they might not have to live in dread. I had not realized what life was like for those whose life was largely post-9/11. Their dread must have been something like the nuclear annihilation we feared in the Fifties as we dove under our desks in school drills. It would seem that they were not celebrating a death but the promise of their own lives much freer from fear.

  • Thank you for an extra thoughtful piece of writing. I have thought of it off and on all this past week. OBL unleashed the dogs of war, and in the end they found him, and he now lies unmarked in a never-to-be found grave. As almost all who perpetrate great evil, like any great criminal kingpin, he was not to find a quiet death in old age.

    I stayed up late that Sunday night to watch and hear the President’s announcement, and although I felt a satisfaction and pride in our revenge, I also felt a sadness that this had to be. No gloating; only the somber remembrance of those who have perished and suffered in the wake of his monstrous deed—here and in Iraq and Afghanistan.

  • Alex,

    I’ve just been turned on to your blog thanks to Jerry Coyne over at Why Evolution is True. What a find! This post in particular has articulated perfectly the ambivalence I’ve felt regarding “justice.” Particular to the U.S, I’ve long wondered if the practical operations of our justice system is more of a cathartic exercise for society than it is about maintaining social stability. (Only a deluded person thinks the death penalty is fairly applied, so that is low-hanging fruit.) Of course, as social animals, people need to adhere to some form of social contract, but is punishment the key? I think our mega prisons that are being filled as fast as they are built here in the U.S. are evidence it is not.

    As for the genetic vs. formative roots of our thoughts and actions, there are no easy answers. Many people enter society at a disadvantage due to either their heredity or socio-economic factors, or both. Adding nurture to innate tendencies makes the issue a tangled mess. A compassionate justice system would acknowledge this as part of any workable answer. Workable, not easy. Again, there are no easy answers. A few lawyers, judges, and politicians need to read this.

    Happy Cat: Delighted to have you here. The points you make are right on. Determining how to apportion responsibility is a sticky thicket indeed.


  • I tend to agree with Lisa and related posts that there is something very flawed about a “nation of laws” going in and blowing bin Laden’s brains out, even though some find it deeply satisfying. America puts people on trial, we prove they did wrong, we honor the process—that’s our concept of justice. But I have no doubt it had to be done. We can’t reconcile killing him because he was “evil,” to his followers we are the “evil” ones. I can only hope bin Laden’s situation is unique, never to be repeated in any respect, and certainly not a precedent for American behavior in the future.

  • I am excited to read this post. I am excited that I agree with you on every point. I am excited that so many other people agree with you. Faith restored!
    Thank you 🙂

    p.s.—only problem…this post should have been longer!

  • This was amazing! Thank you for sharing.