OBL’s Argument (5): Shapes of Justice

The de-construction of rules for the resolution of serious political disagreements, politics of the end of politics, is the drawing near of danger: War is or occurs for us, and escalates, as that de-construction, in search of a foundation of whose dependability or existence at all we may find ourselves uncertain, while at every point along the continuum of determinations, there will be contradiction between political-moral limitations on warfare and its simply absolute lethality, producing among other things an appearance of hypocrisy: a lesser cost of avoiding moral and physical catastrophes from which there would be no actual recovery, or none for us. The “bracketing” or conventionalization of warfare is therefore no small accomplishment, but, even if instilled on the level of moral commandment, the restraints on targeting of civilians, as on horrendous weapons, mistreatment of prisoners and ambassadors, torture of captives, the violation of treaties, and so on remain matters of reasonably considered self-interest. They cannot take any other character than that of provisional victories of imperfection over the logic of perfect annihilation.

Treating the problematic Bin Laden-Rosenbaum concurrence on that logic as typical for Just War theories in general, Bruenig poses two questions that we should now be prepared to address:

As usual, I wonder how far people are willing to go with any of these just war arguments. Do these arguments also apply to the West? Is it just to target American civilians in attacks because they elect the government that conducts so many unjust military operations abroad?

The first question is easy to answer in general terms: Yes, of course, an argument meant to propose universal standards of justice would apply universally, though to apply the arguments properly means to apply them with due regard to specific contexts.

Bruenig’s second question is imprecisely stated, but, rather than appear evasive, we can acknowledge as obvious the conclusion that Bin Laden was partly right, and that there is nothing senseless or obviously obscene in his argument, nor in saying so. We may suspect our resort to reflexively emotional denials, a refusal to treat his logic as logic at all and to respond to it on its level, reflects our uneasiness with its force. To put things plainly, though at gross risk of being misunderstood, if and only if we accept Bruenig’s version of Bin Laden’s premises as stated – as to “so many” “unjust” operations – then attacks on American civilians, civilian-combatants like the citizens of any nation worthy of the name, all the more strongly implicated as citizens of a democratic nation, would appear to be justifiable by simple logic: justice as the negation of injustice, may the punishment fit the crime. We may strongly suspect that, furnished with similar premises in relation to some other enemy, we would arm ourselves with the same logic, in the future as in the past. A further non-prejudicial reflection may lead us to view such attacks or counter-attacks as inevitable.

We cannot say more at this point, however: Whether particular attacks or counter-attacks would be in themselves just, or, something different, adequately justified, or, something different again, prudent, are not the same questions. The assumption that these different categories must be the same category is characteristic of fanaticism, of primitive polemics, and of errors usually committed by a few and paid for by many. The necessary alternative is to treat the categories as somewhat severable, entailing an acknowledgment that, though the pursuit or defense of a particular national, religious, or political project may be at least as just as any other project, many particular notions of achieving justice may still be unwise, and finally or concretely unjustifiable.

This simple observation, an argument for prudence that ought to be superfluous, will be received as cowardice, treason, or inhumanity in the eyes of the committed. Compulsory pieties and the habits of revulsion that they reinforce do not, however, cancel, or even meet, the logic of an Osama Bin Laden, or a Thane Rosenbaum. Laws or conventions must be introduced against this logic precisely because it is so implacably sound, because the totalization of communities under the “friend-enemy distinction” appears to be at least second nature, if not first nature at all times, merely revealed or brought to the surface in war, including war against war. We may pretend to condemn the logic from on high, but at best we resist it while always at least half in its grip, seeking shapes of justice in clouds of necessity.


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