Recently by Butler Shaffer: How Perverted Have We Become?
Gabriela: And you believe everything the authorities tell you? Franz Kafka: Well, I have no reason to doubt. Gabriela: They're authorities! That's reason enough. ~ From the movie Kafka
My recent article on the U.S. government's assassination of Osama bin Laden elicited many favorable responses, along with a negative one that advised me that this man "got what he deserved." The reader went on to ask "how dare you imply that we owed him the u2018right' to be captured and brought to justice." How effortlessly we make our judgments when our minds are in the default mode, and we need only parrot the words of those in authority!
The media has long been an echo chamber for the avoidance of independent thought and judgment. It is easy to repeat the party line that the state's enemy du jour "got what he deserved" when one refuses to ask the question "what does any of us u2018deserve'?" What do I "deserve?" Do you know what you "deserve," and for what actions? From what set of facts do we draw when we make such judgments about the conduct of others? I am neither a fan nor a defender of bin Laden, but those who are so anxious to invoke "closure" as an excuse for evading inquiries into the nature of governmental policies, might ask themselves why they are so willing to embrace his murder.
An answer to the question "what did bin Laden deserve?" depends upon one's perspective. Even leaving aside the obvious responses that his Al Qaeda sympathizers would make, even patriotic Americans might have differing opinions, depending upon the time period of one's assessment. When the Reagan administration found bin Laden and Al Qaeda useful agents to help rid Afghanistan of Soviet military forces, American politicians took turns posing with these "freedom fighters" for self-serving photo-ops. Their combined efforts drove the Soviets from that country, and helped bring about the collapse of the Soviet Union and the end of the Cold War. For his part in all of this, did bin Laden "deserve" having a statue built to him in Washington, D.C., or a boulevard named for him?
But when his usefulness to American interests terminated — or even became hostile — he was quickly relegated to the character of "villain." This is a tactic long predating Machiavelli, having been useful, in recent years, to transform Saddam Hussein from Donald Rumsfeld's smiling photo-op "friend" to a linch-pin in the axis of evil; to Muammar Gaddafi's mercurial foe/friend/foe role of convenience in American foreign policy. That most Americans insist on remaining so dupable — if not outright stupid — as the state plays out its games of "endless enemies" at their expense, is remarkable.
What did bin Laden "deserve" in all of this? What do any of us "deserve" in our dealings with one another? Is there any principle to which we can turn to help us answer such questions? Do we "deserve" to be coerced, robbed, or killed whenever someone with superior strength is able to do these things to us? Is this the highest social standard to which we can repair? Have the playground bully and the brutalizing parent become the "founding fathers" of our "New World Order?"
If the defenders of state assassinations believe they have found a defensible tactic for resolving disputes — or just promoting their own preferences — should it become more widely available for all of us to employ? If two neighbors have a long-standing dispute as to the ownership of rose bushes along their property boundaries, should they resort to murder to settle the matter? Do we not understand that the problem of urban street-gangs is but politics on a different scale; that Obama's drive-by shooting in a house in Abbottabad differs from such a killing in south-central Los Angeles more in terms of geography than substance? If the political establishment is willing to embrace such methods as a way of eliminating political enemies in foreign countries, should the same practices be acknowledged as appropriate within America? Might we want to rethink the "lone-nut-with-a-gun" explanations most of us eagerly swallowed to explain the deaths of the Kennedy brothers, Martin Luther King, Malcolm X, et. al. as well as the failed attempts on the lives of Ronald Reagan and George Wallace?
For decades, I have tried to discover whether there is some principle upon which all people can agree to define the propriety of our actions; a proposition that rises above arbitrary subjective preferences. Politically-defined laws will not suffice, since the state — being defined by its use of violence — exists to promote and enforce conflicts among people. Neither have I found so-called "natural law" principles much help, as their content seems to vary from one advocate to another.
The one standard to which I am able to find a virtual consensus is this: no one wants to be victimized. No one accepts that their life or other property interest should be subject to trespass by another. Sadly, most of us have internalized our regular victimization by the state, sanctioning such predations provided (a) we believe everyone else to be so bound — the vicious doctrine of "equality," and (b) if we are to be singled out for maltreatment, that we be accorded "due process of law."
The idea that the military and/or the police — the enforcement arms of the state — could undertake arbitrary and deadly force against any person, finds support among most conservatives. This is why the market for flags and "support the troops" decals blossoms whenever the emperor finds a new "enemy" to attack. It is also why so many conservatives — and even a number of so-called "liberals" — can get their diapers so knotted over the suggestion that Osama bin Laden should have been brought to trial rather than murdered. It is the same mindset that allows police officers to gun down "suspects" without, themselves, being held to account in a court of law.
Suppose a man is "suspected" of having committed a heinous crime (e.g., sexually assaulting and then murdering a small child)? Suppose this man is found and arrested by the police, who then take him into a back alley and kill him? Did he "get what he deserved?" Would you raise any objection to this — unless, of course, you were the suspect — or would you regard demands for a public trial to be only a "loophole" that might allow him to "escape" his punishment? Is a jury determination of "innocence" to be regarded as a "legal technicality?" Is "suspicion" or "accusation" the equivalent of "guilt?" Should "criminal procedure" classes in law school be required to address such matters as "how to organize a lynch mob?" Should a Ku Klux Klan Grand Dragon square off with an ACLU activist to debate the question "is justice delayed, justice denied?"
Given the grisly history of lynching in this country — in which the race of the victim was often all that mattered — President Obama who, regardless of where he was born, has more melanin in his system than most Americans, ought to have resisted the self-righteous impulse that has led some people to respond to fear by pulling sheets over their heads!
Don't you understand that if the bin Ladens of the world can be "brought to justice" by government hit-men who, like their Mafia counterparts, then dump the bodies into the ocean, so can you? Insistence upon state-defined "due process of law" is no guarantee that the innocent shall not be punished, but it's an improvement over assassinations, torture, trips to hidden prisons around the world, and the denial of habeas corpus. Jury trials often result in wrongful convictions, but I'd rather take my chances with twelve men and women with no sinister agendas of their own, than with decisions made behind closed doors by the politically unscrupulous. Bin Laden "deserved" a public trial for the same reasons you and I would.
With each passing month, it becomes increasingly evident that the United States of America — as a formal system — is about finished. The Constitution has become virtually meaningless as a means of conducting the business of the state. The "separation of powers" of the various branches of government — which we used to pretend would limit the ambitions of each — has given way to notions of "empire," with the president playing the role of "emperor," able to start wars on his own motion (and without congressional approval); to torture or imprison without trial, or order the assassination of any persona non grata of his designation; to give away hundreds of billions of dollars to his corporate friends; ad nauseum. Over many decades, the powers granted to government in the Constitution — which, far from being limited, speak of "general welfare," "necessary and proper," and "reasonable" — have been given very expansive definitions by the courts. By contrast, the rights reserved to individuals have been accorded very restrictive meanings. In the treatment of bin Laden — as well as the continuing incarcerations at Guantanamo — we see further confirmation that what we once thought of as an inalienable right to a public trial is another illusion sacrificed to the empty rhetoric of "national security."
Though the "United States of America" is in a terminal condition, "America" — as a social system — may yet survive. America preceded the nation-state and, if we can revisit the basic assumptions that underlay the "founding fathers" efforts, we may discover why conditions in which peace, liberty, and respect for life must take precedence over edicts offered by rulers who smirk and strut as they demand obedience to their every whim.
In the course of such inquiries, we may discover why bin Laden — along with every one of us — deserved to not be dealt with in such an arbitrary, coercive manner. Institutionalized violence is the essence of every political system, and is in the process of destroying Western Civilization. But as secession and nullification enjoy an increasing interest among thoughtful people, members of the establishment power structure may find themselves regarded as the new "Red Coats." Like their predecessors — and in the words of Lysander Spooner — they may then be urged "to go home and content themselves with the exercise of only such rights and powers as nature has given to them in common with the rest of mankind."
Butler Shaffer [send him e-mail] teaches at the Southwestern University School of Law. He is the author of the newly-released In Restraint of Trade: The Business Campaign Against Competition, 1918–1938 and of Calculated Chaos: Institutional Threats to Peace and Human Survival. His latest book is Boundaries of Order.