Vengeance Is Never Sweet


Bin Laden has been killed and America’s thirst for revenge has been satisfied. All week the mood has been jubilant but ugly. Outside the White House, at Ground Zero in New York, in towns and cities across the country, young frolickers have been waving the stars and stripes, shouting "U.S.A!" and partying into the night.

On Monday, the New York Times ran pages of admiration — at the expense of almost other news — for the "brave Navy SEALs who killed this Satan of a man". USA Today announced "a great uplift for America". Interviewees said things like "this shows that this country always gets its man" and "that’s what happens if you mess with us". And so it has continued all week.

It has been the same on television. Television news channels have homed in on one story: the elimination of bin Laden. They scrambled to outdo each other with alleged exclusives that sought to reflect the drama of helicopters landing on the high walled compound in distant Abbotabad.

Almost as sickening as the boasting about a brilliantly planned and excecuted operation — which was given the green light by a newly crowned tough guy President — has been the shortage of dissenting voices in the mainstream media. A few bloggers have raised questions but the consensus verdict is that justice has been done. What justice?

The most audible debate is coming from members of Congress who don’t think that the bullying and swaggering has been sufficient. These representatives accuse the Pakistan government of harboring bin Laden. They threaten to punish that country by cutting off aid. Let’s hold Pakistan accountable, not ourselves.

The assertion, delivered in an accusatory tone, that, despite the deficit, unemployment and unending wars, America is the best country in the world, takes us back to the days following 9/11. No debate, no asking why, only jingoism, rampant nationalism. French fries became freedom fries. Congressmen assembled to sing the Star Spangled Banner. The childish but dangerous "good guys, bad guys" view of the world promoted the doomsday solution that might is always right. There is the same noise and the same prescriptions now. It beggars belief  — though Obama’s tone was partly reflective and stopped short of returning to the bring-it-on bravado of the Bush years.

Bin Laden was killed by a bullet to the head and one to the heart. He was unarmed but was reported to have fought back initially. This shouldn’t be surprising. Did anybody expect the militant jihadi to say something like, "Welcome to my compound, I’m glad you’ve come. Arrest me if you like but let me show you around first"?

The word justice has been sullied, as though its value can be explained by hundreds of journalists, politicians and TV commentators repeating the mantra "justice has been done". There is no justice in state murder, no justice in ignoring criminal law’s due process — even if the evidence is irrefutable that bin Laden masterminded the attacks on New York, Washington and helped to plan other terrorist atrocities. There is no justice in implying that the death of one man, however notorious, can deflect attention from the slaughter of hundreds of thousands of innocents in Iraq and Afghanistan.

We could be groping towards a semblance of justice if bin Laden joined Bush and Blair in the dock of the international criminal court, each charged with crimes against humanity and each presumed innocent until shown otherwise.

Judgement by politicians. Trial by media. Conviction by public consensus. Voyeurs arrive at the Abbotobad compound. Journalists explain how high the walls and why garbage was burned instead of being collected. A few crocodile tears are shed as we’re told by White House spokespersons that bin Laden’s body was washed and wrapped accoding to Muslim custom and then slipped gently into the Arabian Sea.

And all the while, Australian politicians and media are singing from the same hymn book of revenge.


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Launched in 2004, New Matilda is one of Australia's oldest online independent publications. It's focus is on investigative journalism and analysis, with occasional smart arsery thrown in for reasons of sanity. New Matilda is owned and edited by Walkley Award and Human Rights Award winning journalist Chris Graham.