09/12/2011 05:56 pm ET Updated Nov 11, 2011

Justice and Martyrdom

Following the death of Osama bin Laden, President Obama announced that justice had been done. Bin Laden supporters were quick to point that he had died a "martyr." Bin Laden himself had predicted his own "martyrdom" if he was to fall at the hands of Americans and their allies. A conflict therefore ensues. No one who thinks of an execution (by a lawful entity) as an act of justice would think of it as an act of martyrdom. So, among the people who agree that he is not a martyr; should we agree that it is an act of justice? In this article, I make the argument that the execution/assassination of suicidal murderers cannot be termed as justice.

Years before 9/11, my home-town of Nairobi was the victim of Osama bin Laden's carnage when, on August 7 1998, an Al Qaeda suicide attack happened at the American embassy located in the heart of the city, killing more than 200 Kenyans and 12 Americans.

I think we can gain some insight by contemplating how we would have handled the Nairobi bombing case if things had gone a little differently. Imagine that, just as in real life, the suicide bomber's expectations included achieving martyrdom and being rewarded in the hereafter for his act. Due to some technical malfunction, however, his bomb exploded and killed 200 Kenyans and 12 Americans, but left him unscathed. He was captured by Kenyan authorities and found guilty of murder. Hypothetically, say the penalty for murder in Kenya is death. Should he be put to death according to the law, which in effect would give him the push to complete his mission? Should he be held alive and be deterred from taking away his life to prevent him from completing his mission, which would contradict the law?

We run into the same issues when grappling with how to deal with any suicidal murderer who thinks he is dying for a cause. Assuming that we are thinking of justice in terms of retribution and the just deserts for murderers include being put to death, does a murderer who thinks of his death as martyrdom deserve to be killed? Perhaps we can reason that in cases of capital punishment on non-suicidal murders, an execution is punishment in part because the people who are executed have plans and desires that depend on the continuation of their own lives. On the one hand, we are preventing those future-oriented desires from being realized. On the other, if we think of the person as consisting of his past, present, and future life-stages, then execution wipes the future stages from existence.

Maybe that's a kind of punishment, simply depriving someone of future existence. If the martyr has no plans for his future (in this world) and no desire to live, then it doesn't seem that execution is punishment, just a painful moment before the curtain goes down. Our perception of justice seems to depend on the view of death by the person being executed. How bad it is might depend, in part, on how we think of death and what makes death terrifying.

Justice also varies on how criminal justice systems are set up in different societies. Let us consider a recent example of attempted martyrdom. In Norway, the maximum sentence for any crime, including mass murder, is 21 years imprisonment. Anders Behring Breivik, the Norwegian right-wing extremist who killed more than 70 people, most of them teenagers, can only serve up to 21 years in prison. Life imprisonment, which is viewed as a humane alternative to capital punishment in the U.S and other countries, is too much a sentence for Breivik as far as the Norwegian law is concerned. In Kenya or the United States, we would execute him in the name of justice. In Norway, the 32 year-old Breivik could be gracing the streets of Oslo during his mid-50s, after serving his sentence. Considering how these societies vary in their response to the same crime, it's hard to nail a universal consensus on what justice entails.

So far, I have raised many questions and offered no answers. My attempt with these conundrums is to demonstrate that justice to suicidal murderers is not a simple task to execute. There is no equation that one can plug values into and automatically read off what an offender deserves. The ultimate justice for the victims of murderers is predicated on its impossibility. It would require bringing back to life each life taken. As we commemorate 9/11, let us not confound vengeance and justice. President Obama and the rest of us should therefore concede that our human ability to respond justly to suicidal murderers is substantially limited.