September 11, 2011

Justice Claimed. Justice Served?

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Flashback. Four months ago. May 1. Buenos Aires, Argentina. “Harry!! Harry!! Mataron a Bin Laden, vení!!” A weight seemed to lift. A sense of justice seemed to flicker. Nine years and eight months had passed since my 11-year-old self had listened in shock and bewilderment to the frantic and panicked coverage of Sept. 11, 2001. It was hard to believe that we had finally found him.

I rushed to the T.V. room in my host family’s house. “Justice has been done,” Obama said as I sat down. The Spanish translations seemed choppy. Clearly the White House hadn’t provided the Argentine news stations with an advance script. As the commentators scrambled to translate on the fly, the sound began to fade in and out. Obama’s message was being lost in the vagaries of live television translation. My Argentine host mother and her two grown children could not understand a thing.

After several remarks of “Che, ¿que esta diciendo Obama?” I began to translate. As I did so I started to realize my host family and I were listening to two different speeches. One was a report on a victory, the other a sickening boast after an equally sickening murder. Happiness and relief on the one side were disgust and horror on the other. My sense of pride and patriotism contrasted with their reluctant resignation towards another unilateral power-stunt by the world’s policeman. As Obama’s speech came to its end, somebody turned the volume down and a discussion started up.

They saw an injustice: the killing of an unarmed man (even though that part of the story had not yet surfaced), a violation of sovereignty and yet another example of Yankee imperialism. At that point I spoke up. I defended Obama, the United States, myself. I explained why, as an American, I felt that justice had indeed been done, why many of the families of the victims of 9/11 were probably feeling a sense of closure after a decade of uncertainty. To suggest that killing Osama was just another example of U.S. imperialism seemed outrageous. I dismissed their arguments as part of the tired Chávez-esque rhetoric of exaggerated anti-Yankeeism.

Monday. 9 a.m. Political Theory class. “¿Cual es la visión de la justicia que expuso Obama en su discuro anoche?” First reply: “Una justicia pervertida que no permite la oposición.” Second reply: “Ninguna justicia, sólo un homicidio.” Right away another: “Una justicia que equivale al poder y nada más.” The last answer caught my attention. “Power and nothing more.” It was something I had heard before, an observation that came from some of my friends in Argentina: The United States is only beholden to the limits of its military and economic power and it simply redefines justice as anything that falls within those limits.

It was the case of our interventions in Latin America throughout the Cold War: the replacement of Allende with Pinochet, the overthrow of Arbenz, the invasion of the Dominican Republic, the supposed tacit support that Kissinger gave to the Argentine dictatorship in its Dirty War. All were policies that are difficult to defend, events which show the worst side of American power: the self-serving and insensitive wielding of military and economic might, even though thousands (if not millions) of people suffer because of it. The same power, apparently, was displayed in the killing of Osama bin Laden. I was not about to accept that explanation right away. It was clear to me that the situations were not the same. Al Qaeda had attacked the United States. Allende had not. Al Qaeda was and is an actual threat, Arbenz a could-be-but-probably-not communist who definitely had no designs on killing American citizens. In the end Osama was a murderer who deserved what he got. How was that not clear? It wasn’t clear because even though all of the above might be true, the killing of Osama was still a unilateral action made possible only by the fact that the United States military and intelligence were capable of doing it. Whether it made the world safer or not, whether Osama was evil or not, misses the point. What my Argentine classmates and friends objected to was that the United States could commit such unilateral actions, be they for the greater good or not. Which brings us to an interesting point, and one that I had never fully considered before living in another country: Who are we (and in this case, our President) to say what is just? Perhaps we were right in the case of Osama. After all, we did kill a mass murderer. But should the United States, or any country, have the ability to do what it wants and call it justice? That we can and do scares many Argentines. Maybe it should scare us as well. Can we trust ourselves to always do the humanitarian, just, freedom-affirming act? If the answer is no, then we should be wary of the way we killed Osama bin Laden. Or at least of calling it justice.

Harry DiFrancesco is a senior in the College of Arts and Sciences. He may be reached at hdifrancesco@cornellsun.com. Stirring the Pot appears alternate Mondays this semester.

Original Author: Harry DiFrancesco