With the assassination of an unarmed Osama bin Laden and questions arising whether he should have been abducted and brought to the United States to stand trial, the distinctions between justice and revenge once more confuse and confound the law abiding.
Fifty years ago Israel's spy network kidnapped Hitler's most trusted henchman, Adolf Eichmann, from a suburb in Buenos Aires, Argentina, where he had been hiding for 10 years. The Israelis drugged and disguised him as an El Al flight attendant, and spirited him to a Jerusalem courtroom where he would become known as the infamous man in the bulletproof glass booth.
Argentina angrily decried that Israel had violated its sovereignty even though it had been harboring a mass murderer, in plain view, living under an alias. (Pakistan is registering similar, even more laughable complaints about the killing of bin Laden.) The world watched the trial for 14 weeks, which represented a legal and moral indictment of Eichmann's crimes as the architect of the Final Solution.
But what if those Israeli agents had simply shot Eichmann in the head while he was walking home from work, and then dumped his body into a ditch? Would this have been less just; would it have been illegal?
There are those who now wonder why if bin Laden was unarmed -- and his Pakistani fortress was fortified merely with a few couriers, one of his own sons and his youngest wife -- didn't the 80 American commandos simply kidnap him, Eichmann-style, and bring him back to the United States alive rather than toss his body into the ocean?
President George W. Bush promised that in retaliating against those responsible for 9/11, the United States would be seeking justice and not revenge. But what did he think justice should look like, and how would it have differed from vengeance? Hunting down and killing bin Laden, under President Obama's watch, appears to have been an act of revenge that can't entirely be reconciled with the treatment of Khalid Shaikh Mohammed, the confessed mastermind of 9/11, who awaits a military commission in Guantánamo Bay. Yet most people would agree that bin Laden received his just desserts even in the absence of a trial.
Not too long ago Saddam Hussein was yanked from a hole and forced to appear in court where he was tried and executed. Just last week Muammar Gaddafi was nearly killed when a NATO bomb dropped on his hideaway. Both Hussein and Gaddafi were unsavory dictators, despots and menaces to the world order. Yet one was subject to a trial before his people and the world, while the other is likely to be blown up or assassinated before the end of this month.
Did Eichmann and Hussein receive true justice by appearing in courts of law and sentenced to death under the rule of law? Was Osama bin Laden notably and unceremoniously treated to a revenge killing for his crimes on 9/11 (and Gaddafi for his act of terrorism against Pan Am Flight 103 from Lockerbie), by meeting a violent and summary end without ever receiving his day in court? Four murderous men with an incalculable and un-washable amount of blood on their hands, and yet two received conventional justice, while bin Laden (and perhaps Gaddafi), met his fate from a swifter and more wrathful style of biblical vengeance. In the end, however, all are (or will be) dead.
But are these methods of final punishment really so different? In the moral universe, justice and vengeance are mirror images of one another. There can be no justice unless victims feel avenged, and revenge is never just unless it is proportionate. In cases of mass murder, retaliating "measure for measure," an "eye for an eye," "tit for tat," is admittedly more difficult, but retaliation is still mandated, even when the math is imprecise, regardless of what form it takes.
Osama bin Laden produced a great debt on 9/11, and he was deserving of a substantial payback to settle the score. Whether it came from a bullet to his head or a trial that would have ended in a guilty verdict and a death sentence, punishment was due. And for reasons both legal and moral, his many victims had to be given the satisfaction that justice was done.
The surviving families of 9/11 are surely untroubled that bin Laden was assassinated without the courtesy of judicial review. The heinousness of his crimes and the magnitude of their loss makes his summary execution just. And the vengeful feeling that his death evokes does not in any way diminish the justice he received.