Do Unto Others focuses on the Middle East, (nonviolent) social movements, and how I make sense of my place in the world. I'm currently based in Cairo, Egypt doing peacebuilding and community development.

Thursday, January 05, 2012

Can murder be commensurate with justice?

Ed Note: I found this while going through files from this past semester. I wrote it, for a class, back in November following the killing of Libyan leader, Colonel Qaddafi. The news is months old, but the point of the piece remains salient. 

Deceased former Libyan leader, Muammar Qaddafi
What we know: Qaddafi was captured alive, beaten and dragged behind a vehicle, and shot in the head. The exact details of those events are unclear, but numerous reports and witnesses have corroborated that Qaddafi was intentionally shot in the head after he was captured.

Qaddafi was a cruel and ruthless dictator who undoubtedly oversaw the torture, disappearance, and killing of many Libyans over his four decades of tyranny.  Qaddafi was wanted by the International Criminal Court for crimes against humanity, crimes which were great in their quantity and severity.

The local and global reaction to Qaddafi's killing has been varied, but the enormous majority of state representatives and media outlets have heralded the end of a dark era in Libyan history, the demise of a cruel dictator.  On the other end of the spectrum, human rights advocates and lawyers have condemned the killing of Qaddafi because it eliminated Qaddafi's right to due process and undermined the court's ability to seek truth and accountability for his crimes. Absent from the discussion has been analysis of the ubiquitous acceptance of justice by execution.

Pundits in Washington, Paris, and London didn't outright condemn the killing of Qaddafi because it's actually the solution they sought from the beginning. Several possible Qaddafi hideouts were bombed throughout the course of NATO's offensive in Libya, and to my understanding, bombs are usually intended to kill, not read Miranda rights.

The United States has been incredibly consistent, especially under the Obama administration, in its insistence on using targeted assassinations and extrajudicial killings in a handful of countries. The United States recently assassinated U.S. citizen, Anwar al-Awlaki, while he was in Yemen, and shortly thereafter, another U.S. drone strike also killed his teenage son, also a U.S. citizen.  In an aura of secrecy, the Obama administration has refused to release information about the rationale for those targeted assassinations and has even declined to name the intended targets of those strikes.

The United States also felt no obligation to explain why Osama bin Laden was killed instead of captured.  Initially the U.S. described the events at Bin Laden's compound as a “firefight” but later conceded that Bin Laden was unarmed when he was killed.

The most shocking element of these examples is the flippancy with which a major world power, theoretically subject to the confines of international law, decides who should be killed instead of given due process. In today's world, the burden of proof for execution is as simple as making a statement, such as, “it was not possible to subdue and arrest the individual, so we used the necessary force.” Period. End of Q & A.

This lack of consideration for seeking justice through the legal process was recently demonstrated by former Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs, Jendayi Frazer, in her NPR interview regarding the sending of US troops to stop Joseph Kony, the leader of the Lord's Resistance Army leader. Frazer was asked, “and what would success look like in this situation? How will you know if this mission has succeeded?” She responded, “Kony's dead. I think that's the most important strategic goal, is that he's dead. Obviously, if you capture him, that's just as well. But basically, to remove him from the battlefield.”  Frazer's inclination to cite killing Kony as the primary objective of the mission, and only later adding the footnote that capturing him would serve the same purpose, speaks volumes about the U.S. approach to “justice.” Clearly, justice by murder is possible, even preferable.

Many of those disgusted with the killing of Qaddafi, the subsequent celebrations in the streets, and the days-long display of Qaddafi's body in a meat locker have asked how the Libyan people could celebrate death in such a manner.  But our critique of 'justice by execution' would fall short if we failed to broaden the scope of our discussion beyond the acts of the Libyan rebels.

The fact is that the United States has cornered the market on executions, targeted assassinations, and arbitrary killings. We would have done the deed with a drone, I mean, hell, we tried a number of times but just couldn't finish him off.

The decision to kill Qaddafi – Awlaki, his son, and Bin Laden – fails to consider the function of the legal process and blurs the distinction between ourselves and those we abhor.

In death, there can be no truth-telling, no explanation of disappearances or cruel repression.  Peace will not magically arrive to Libya's doorstep because their dictator has a bullet in his head.  Qaddafi's regime has come to and end, and would have likewise ended if Qaddafi was sitting in a cell awaiting a national or international criminal trial.  The killing of Qaddafi demonstrates the incongruity of the US seeking to establish more democratic societies around the world while, at the same time, teaching the world the benefits of killing those whom you deem worthy of death.  

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