Tuesday, May 18, 2004

Not justified

Political Juice is bothered by a comment from President Bush about the murder of Nick Berg. The offending remark: "There is no justification for the brutal execution of Nicholas Berg — no justification whatsoever."

Well, of course Bush sees no justification for this. If the act -- which was claimed as an act of revenge against American treatment of Iraqi prisoners -- were to be justified somehow, that would mean admitting that American treatment of Iraqi prisoners has been atrocious. It would mean taking responsibility for those American actions and the possible consequences. And certainly we can't do that, can we?

Look. We justify revenge all the time in America. Our movies are full of revenge narratives -- protagonists who have been wronged, who seek "justice." (We call it "justice" when we agree with the revenge. Just look at the death penalty.) Our attack on Afghanistan was justified revenge, wasn't it? Heck, we even decided to extend that revenge (and its justification) to an invasion of Iraq!

Simply put, how stupid, how hypocritical, how utterly idiotic for Bush to cry out "foul" over the terrible beheading of Nick Berg. Yes, it was terrible. Yes, we should be upset, disturbed, sickened, even outraged at this graphic display of violence and cruelty. But how does Bush claim the act is "unrelated" to the prisoner scandal? How can he possibly claim there's no justification for it?

I disagree, and here’s why. First, we need to talk about what 'no justification' means, to us and to President Bush. If I ask you to justify your actions, I am really saying: "Why did you do that?" So one way to understand 'no justification' is 'no reason why.'

Is President Bush saying Nick Berg's killers acted for no reason? I don't think so, but PJ seems to. His point is that the murderers did offer a justification for their actions. Their reason for doing this was to take revenge, generally for the American occupation, and specifically for the mistreatment of prisoners at Abu Ghraib. Since they told us how they justified the killing, it's wrong for President Bush to say there was no justification for it.

Well, if the only meaning of justification were 'motivation or reason for an action,' then I would agree with him. President Bush has said before that terrorists desire to attack the United States because they are "killers." Saying that the reason terrorists kill is that they are killers is tautological and not helpful.

But saying that an action is unjustified is not the same as saying it happened for no reason. To justify means to show that something is right or correct. When President Bush says there is "no justification" for Nick Berg's decapitation, he means: "No matter why they said they did it, it was wrong. Nothing excuses this murder."

I agree with this statement, and I think PJ probably would, too. It was wrong to saw Nick Berg's head off. The men who did it are not justified. They were not right. We do not accept their excuse for doing this.

Think about this, PJ. How would you feel if President Bush had said this:

"The decapitation of Nick Berg was justified by the continuing occupation of Iraq, as well as the mistreatment of Iraqi prisoners at Abu Ghraib."

Would you agree? I wouldn't. Even if I were to accept revenge as a valid motivation, I could not accept murder as a just price to exact for humiliation. If they had kidnaped Nick Berg and and made him wear panties on his head, or made him pose nude with a bunch of other men wearing dog collars, that would be closer.

But this was an execution. Yes, we have executions in America, but I think there are some pretty important differences. Let's say we are outraged by a crime. We don't just grab someone who belongs to the same group as the person we think committed the crime. We tell the police what we know about the suspect, and that's where our role ends. The police investigate and make the arrest, the district attorney prosecutes, a jury convicts, and a judge sentences. Then there are appeals, etc., which go on literally for decades. At the end of this meticulously-regulated process a person might be executed.

That's not what happened to Nick Berg. No police, no lawyers, no jury, no judge, no governor to appeal to. It was a lynching, and we don't believe those are justified, even in states where we perform executions. The death penalty is not just "revenge that we agree with," and the decapitation of Nick Berg was nothing like American justice. The two are not morally equivalent, and anyone who implies otherwise is simply being intellectually dishonest.

Yes, Nick Berg died because his killers hated the American occupation and wanted revenge. Can we understand the human impulse to seek revenge? Yes. Does that mean his murder is justified? No.


No comments: