Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Justice or Just Deserts?

What is justice? Is justice an "eye for an eye?" Can there be justice without without violence? And is justice the same as closure?

Kevin Bartoy tackles these questions in his article about the death of Osama bin Laden on May 1, 2011.

Kevin Bartoy is a father, husband, and archaeologist who lives in Seattle, Washington. He is a native of the Pacific Northwest and a proud public servant to the citizens of the State of Washington.

I have no sympathy for Osama bin Laden. When I heard the news of his death, I did not reflect on the loss of a human life. There is some inherent truth in the aphorism that those who live by the sword will die by the sword. Violence begets violence and those who live by violence will in the end get their “just deserts.” Let’s just not confuse “just deserts” with “justice.” The assassination of Osama bin Laden was not justice in any sense of the word. At best, it was just deserts.

Just deserts are sweet. Justice is bland. Just deserts come with a dash of vengeance and there is always a sense of relief that comes with vengeance. But, it seems that many of my fellow citizens amplified this feeling of relief into ecstasy. I immediately cringed when I heard reports of mobs breaking into chants of “USA! USA!” and singing “We are the Champions.” I even thought it was less than tasteful to wave American flags and high five. Aren’t these the types of behaviors that we condemn when someone does them to us? Remember the cries for vengeance that rained down on the Iraqis who were televised parading around the corpses of dead American soldiers and contractors? Do we not expect our behavior to receive a similar reaction from others?

If you want to celebrate in this manner, fine. This is America after all. We have a considerable amount of leniency when it comes to freedom of expression (that is, as long as you keep your clothes on). But, please, don’t bring forth all the righteous anger when al Qaeda throws a party to celebrate the next beheading or bombing. Remember that your actions will also make you part of the cycle of violence and hatred that we should be seeking to eliminate rather than emulate.

Enough of my reaction to the reactions of others though.

My immediate visceral reaction to the news of bin Laden’s death was a familiar one to me. It was the emotion that I most associate with just deserts. I am not too proud to admit that there was a tinge of vengeance in that emotion. But, it was more of a sense of relief that comes with closure. It was the same feeling that I had when I heard of the news of the death of Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan.

Before you stop reading, let me remind you that among other highlights of their respective careers, Richard Nixon was the man who pulled the trigger on the coup that led to the assassination of Salvador Allende, a democratically elected leader of Chile, and Ronald Reagan was the man who bankrolled death squads that murdered indiscriminately across Central America throughout the 1980s. Despite the fact that they could hide behind democratic elections and a nation state to legitimate their power, these men also lived by the sword. Of course, they had the good luck (not to mention the protection of the largest military force on earth, the most nuclear weapons on earth, and the CIA, among other WMDs) not to die by the sword.

After my initial emotion passed however, I think that I just felt sad. I still do. I feel sad that my fellow citizens are celebrating death. I feel sad that my nation (and many of its citizens) thinks it is legal to commit extrajudicial assassinations on sovereign foreign soil. I feel sad that the media treats the news like a reality show at best and death porn at worst. I feel sad that many of my fellow citizens are afraid to express dissenting opinions of this event. But, most of all, I feel sad that even the President of the United States has the audacity to declare the killing of Osama bin Laden to be justice.

--Kevin Bartoy


  1. And sad that human beings kill one another.

  2. I've had some questions about "desert" vs "dessert" in the context of "just deserts."

    here are a couple of good explanations of the correct grammar:


    and http://www.phrases.org.uk/meanings/just-deserts.html