"Leave to live by no man's leave, underneath the law": U.S. Supreme Court Justice Robert H. Jackson addresses the Nuremberg Tribunal on the expectations of civilisation, 21 November 1945. In executing the unarmed Osama Bin Laden without trial has the United States deviated from the very principles it purports to be defending: the universal right to life and liberty, and the Rule of Law itself?
“BASTARDS!” That’s what I always ended up screaming at the television set every time I watched a documentary about 9/11.
As United Airlines Flight 175 made its final, fatal turn towards the South Tower of the World Trade Centre, I imagined the terror of its passengers.
Hearing the details of how the hijackers seized control of United Airlines Flight 93 made me physically sick.
And, up until last Monday, I’d only to witness again the terrible events of 9/11 for every fibre of my being to cry out in blood-red fury for vengeance.
Vengeance for the butchered hostesses; for the 2,752 men and women who died in the twin towers; for the American people, ashen-faced with shock; for a world that stood, transfixed, by the horrors of that day.
And I’d fantasize about standing before the man who made it happen, Osama Bin Laden, gun in hand, and squeezing-off round after round until he crumpled in a bleeding ruin - just like the proud towers brought low by his command that bright September morning.
But last Monday, when I learned that a commando unit of US Navy Seals had done just that, there was nothing. The sense of exhilaration I’d expected to feel just wasn’t there. Instead, I experienced a very different sensation: a feeling of emptiness; of moral vacuity; of a world going under for the final time … in a sea of blood.
And I realised with a dead feeling that Osama Bin Laden had won.
“HAVE A CARE when fighting monsters”, warned the German philosopher, Friedrich Nietzsche, “lest ye become a monster yourself.”
As I watched the crowd outside the White House wave their flags in the darkness, and listened to the guttural chanting of “U-S-A! U-S-A!”, I recalled the images of joyous Palestinians chanting “Allahu Akbar!”, “God is great!”, and passing out sweets, as news of Bin Laden’s successful attack swept along the Arab “street”.
I heard the American Right demand that President Barack Obama release photographs of Bin Laden’s dead body, and I recalled the “proof of death” videos released by Islamic terrorist groups – the ones where they cut off their prisoners’ heads.
I read the columns of respected New Zealand journalists; columns in which Bin Laden’s death is celebrated in gory, gloating detail: “They blew half his face off.” Columns in which the most splendid achievement of Western Civilisation – the Rule of Law – is casually cast aside: “There are certain people to whom the rules of law and life do not apply. There are certain people who simply have to be killed and thrown to the sharks”. Columns in which President Obama is told he had “a duty to kill”; to make it “final and tidy, no civil rights, no due process”.
I read these columns, and more than ever I was seized by the completeness of Bin Laden’s victory. By the way in which his 9/11mission had succeeded in overthrowing all of the religious and civic traditions which had, over the course of twenty bloody centuries, ceded to the West the unprecedented role of global moral arbiter.
Because it wasn’t the Wahhabist tradition of Islam that outlawed slavery, or gave the world the Geneva Conventions, or the United Nations Charter, or the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. It wasn’t Oriental despotism which outlawed the use of torture, or declared that all human-beings – even convicted criminals and prisoners-of-war – possess an absolute right to be treated with dignity.
These were the hard-won achievements of Christian conscience and Enlightenment reason. They were what made us different. They were what made us better than our enemies: better than our own base selves. They were the fruits of what Abraham Lincoln called “the better angels of our nature” – and they were the most precious things we had.
And Osama Bin Laden made us throw them all away.
WE WEREN’T ALWAYS SO CARELESS. As World War II was coming to an end the “Big Three” – Roosevelt, Stalin and Churchill – debated what to do with the defeated regime. Momentarily they toyed with the idea of summarily executing the Nazi leadership. Given the enormity of their crimes, few would have condemned them.
But they knew better.
The Nazi leaders were arrested – and put on trial.
The American prosecutor, Supreme Court Justice Robert H. Jackson, in his opening address to the Nuremberg Tribunal, told us why:
“[Civilisation] does not expect that you can make war impossible. It does expect that your juridical action will put the forces of International Law, its precepts, its prohibitions and, most of all, its sanctions, on the side of peace, so that men and women of good will in all countries may have ‘leave to live by no man’s leave, underneath the law’.”
This is what we’ve surrendered to Osama Bin Laden: the expectation of civilised behaviour.
This essay was originally published in The Press of Tuesday, 10 May 2011.