What Does the President Mean by "Justice"?

On June 9, when asked for his reaction to the death of Abu Musab Al-Zarqawi, prime mover of Al-Qaeda in Iraq, President Bush declared, "I'm thrilled that [he] was brought to justice." The president's euphemism is profoundly revealing. He does not say "fatally wounded by our bombs" or simply "killed." He says "brought to justice." While most of us would probably agree that coalition forces were justified in killing Al-Zarqawi, the president's phrase nonetheless prompts a crucial question. Just what does "justice" mean to this president and his administration?

The starting point for an answer is his first response--nearly five years ago--to the airborne attacks on the World Trade Towers and the Pentagon. Less than one hour after he learned about the attacks, he told Vice President Cheney, "We're at war . . . somebody's got to pay." Awkwardly enough, the nineteen perpetrators of the attack had already paid in advance with their lives, and were no longer available for punishment. So the president has made others pay--on the principle that 9/11 justifies massive, indiscriminate, and open-ended retaliation. Speaking from the Oval Office on the evening of 9/11, the president said, "We will make no distinction between the terrorists who committed these acts and those who harbor them." Ignoring the simple fact that "the terrorists who committed these acts" were already dead when he spoke those words, the president thus flaunted his grand disdain for fine distinctions. And like a giant oil slick, this grand disdain for fine distinctions has long since oozed across the line between combatants and non-combatants, soldiers and civilians, insurgents and innocent human beings.

At the press conference he gave on the evening of March 17, 2003, just before launching the invasion of Iraq, the president said that American forces would take special care to spare civilian life. But anyone who knew what sort of justice had been administered by our bombing of Afghanistan would also have known what the president's statement was worth. During the two months from October 7 to December 10, 2001, American bombs killed nearly four thousand Afghan civilians (see Mark Herold's detailed account at #75). In the process of trying (in vain) to exterminate the Taliban, American bombers hit--unintentionally, of course!--mud houses, apartment complexes, bus stations, Red Crescent clinics, schools, hospitals, farm villages, marketplaces, mosques, and Red Cross warehouses. At 3:00 A.M. on December 1, as part of an intense attack on Tora Bora, they dropped 25 thousand-pound bombs on Kama Ado, a mountain village ten hours' hike away from Tora Bora, thereby killing . 156 civilian men, women, and children--more than half the village population. But they did not kill Osama bin Laden, who remains alive to this day. Nor did they exterminate the Taliban, which to this day thrives in southern Afghanistan.

If you wonder why our bombs went so wildly astray, the answer is simple. To elude anti-aircraft guns and stinger missiles, American bombers flew above 30,000 feet. From that altitude--about six miles up--you can't make sharp distinctions, least of all worry about the distinction between insurgents and civilians. Your first duty is to protect American planes and the men who fly them. That's what justified our indiscriminate bombing of civilians.

In Iraq the civilian death toll is much higher. Iraq Body Count, which takes so much care to verify its figures that it has been accused of understating them, estimates that at least 38,355 Iraqi civilians have been killed as the result of our military intervention. (See
). Some have been killed by insurgent or terrorist attacks, and some by criminal action resulting from the epidemic breakdown of law and order precipitated by our invasion, but our own bullets and bombs have killed many of them, including of course the 24 men, women, and children of Haditha who were shot in their houses last November because somebody--or in this case some bodies--had to pay for the marine who was killed on the street by an anonymously planted bomb.

"Somebody's got to pay," the president said; that's his idea of justice. And boy, have they paid: well over forty thousand civilian lives in Afghanistan and Iraq combined, more than fourteen times the number of American lives taken on 9/11. Though it has long since been decisively demonstrated that Saddam Hussein had nothing whatever to do with the attacks of 9/11, the president clearly believes that all of these killings are justified by our mission, which was (once upon a time) to rid Iraq of its weapons of mass destruction, but which has since become--in the absence of any such weapons--to plant democracy in its desert soil. In view of that edifying aim, it is instructive to note what was scrawled on the wall of a house in Haditha after 24 of its civilians were shot by our marines: "Democracy did this." Alternatively, the scrawler might also have written, "This is American justice." For already we are being told that the marines who killed those civilians were shooting by the "rules of engagement," so the killings were justified.

Likewise justified is the torture and incarceration of the roughly 450 detainees who have been caged at Guantanamo Bay for more than four years without (except for ten cases) ever being charged, much less tried and convicted. By presidential order, they have been classified as enemy combatants, which means they have no right to the bedrock principle of traditional American justice: the presumption of innocence. Though charged with not a single crime, they are presumed guilty of seeking to harm us--just as Saddam Hussein was presumed guilty of seeking to bomb us. Faced with this kind of justice, is it any wonder that three of them have just committed suicide?

But we cannot afford to construe these suicides as acts of desperation, as silent cries of outrage against the travesty of justice that calls itself Guantanamo. They must instead be read as acts of war. The three prisoners who hanged themselves "have no regard for life, neither ours nor their own," says Rear Admiral Henry Harris, commander of Guantanamo. "I believe this was not an act of desperation, but an act of asymmetrical warfare waged against us."

Once again, it seems, we have been victimized by suicide attacks, which in turn justify torture, indefinite detention without trial, and the indiscriminate killing of civilians: our new brand of justice.