The human urge for ‘justice’, to put right or to punish what was wrong, is a powerful one. In societies across the globe, legal systems – formal or otherwise – are predicated upon the notion that violent transgressions will not go unheeded. Whether retribution takes the form of a prison sentence, a stoning, death, or even a simple apology, peoples everywhere seek and find ‘closure’ in bringing the perpetrators of wrongdoing to task.
This is the backdrop against which the current outpouring of joy being witnessed across the United States at the news of Osama bin Laden’s death must be understood. People who, individually and collectively, felt harmed by the horrific attacks on New York and Washington D.C ten years ago are now experiencing a release, a joy, a tranquillity that comes only from knowing that he who wronged you has met his fate. Watching the tears of firefighters at Ground Zero, who can blame them? Osama bin Laden took the lives of thousands of innocent human beings, and the world is arguably a better place without him in it.
To stop here though is not enough. Indeed, to do so would be to do an injustice to the memory of those who died at his hands, of those who have died subsequently in the effort to find and punish him. As a society, we need to push ourselves a step further. If we can understand why people filled Sixth Avenue to wave American flags, can we not also understand why others cheer the death of allied soldiers in occupied Afghanistan, why still others cheered the fall of the Twin Towers themselves?
In the immediate aftermath of the 9/11 attacks, the language of ‘evil’ was current. For many leaders and political commentators, Osama bin Laden was an ‘evil man’, his deeds ‘evil acts’, those who revelled in them ‘evil people’. This language however hides more that it reveals. When we explain things as ‘evil’, we pathologise them, we remove context from the cause-effect equation, and we prevent ourselves from asking the question – why?
Today, Bin Laden’s death offers us the opportunity to once again ask that question. By following the logic of ‘evil’, we could label those cheering the death of a man in New York City as evil. But we don’t. Because we know that they have a ‘why’ – and we understand where their reaction comes from. For precisely this reason, we need to understand where Osama bin Laden came from, where those who cheer and cheered the loss of innocent American lives come from. As Robert Fisk observed a decade ago, ‘this is also about American missiles smashing into Palestinian homes and US helicopters firing missiles into a Lebanese ambulance’. It’s also about drone attacks, support for brutal dictators, the grossly unfair global distribution of resources.
As the celebrations die down, these are the ‘whys’ we now need to address, without hiding behind the protective veil of ‘evil’. Until we do, it will only be a matter of time before another Bin Laden emerges, and before people East and West experience yet more injustice and yet more desire for the closure of retribution.