What do you mean when you say justice?

I do not know how bad a life has to break in order to kill.

I’ve never been so hungry that i willed hunger,

Never so angry as to want a gun over a pen.

-Suheir Hammad, First Writing Since

I realized something Sunday night when the news of Osama bin Laden’s assassination broke and as I watched the reaction unfold: when I say “justice” I mean something very different than when many other people say the word. I heard about “justice” in President Obama’s speech, on Facebook and Twitter, in the news, in the partying crowd outside the White House.

That’s not what I call justice. I don’t see justice in violence responding to violence. I see vengeance. I don’t see justice in one killing in the midst of many. Where’s the justice in 10 years of war, in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iraq, now Libya? In the killing of uncounted, unacknowledged civilians, including when bin Laden was killed? In sending young Americans, my friends, overseas to kill and be killed? In endless war?

Where’s the justice in pumping money into war overseas while there’s continued state violence against people on American soil? Against American Indians robbed of resources and exposed to sexual violence? Where’s the justice in our “criminal justice” system? A system that locks up far too many people, far too many young people of color including invisibilized queer and trans youth, for non-violent reasons in prisons that produce increased violence within their walls, that condition people to this state of violence and then send them to do violence outside?

Where’s the justice in funding wars while Americans experience the more subtle violence of lack of access to health care, including reproductive health care? When the US deports huge numbers of immigrants? When the divide between rich and poor in this country is getting bigger every day, the poor group growing and the rich group shrinking?

[T]he Nobel Peace Prize winner can fix his mouth to say that killing a man on the other side of the globe provides proof of America’s exceptionalism.

-Kai Wright, The Ability to Kill Osama Bin Laden Does Not Make America Great

So what do I mean when I say justice? It’s much easier to tear down justice as vengeance or claims of justice to mask inequality than to articulate a vision. So what’s the vision?

Jacqueline Rose, feminist, psychoanalytic and literary theorist, talks about justice through the lens of fantasy. She makes the classically feminist move of pulling fantasy from the private realm to show how it shapes the public. Justice is an idea that exists in our psyche, in the realm of desire, and it’s just as messy, complicated, and contradictory as everything else in there. Talk of fantasy isn’t meant to make justice seem unreachable – I think it opens up space to vision for justice more freely, to imagine a justice very different from what we see in the world today, but something we can strive to bring into being. Fantasy certainly feels like a relevant idea to me right now, with the mythology surrounding current events. My friend Hope’s status captured the feeling of current news coverage:

The prince married the commoner and the bad guy is dead? Since when did Disney start writing the scripts for world news??

When this is the story being told, an alternative fantasy certainly seems necessary.

In my vision of justice, harm isn’t answered with greater harm. It’s answered with opportunities to learn and grow, to take something awful and make something better. When an unimaginable hurt happens we would build something better in the rubble instead of increasing violence. Communities come together to grieve and mourn and teach and learn something better. There are already models for this.

I envision a world where I can walk safely and my trans body is loved and celebrated. But not a world where I’m the norm, because there is no norm. Where there’s difference everywhere, and we embrace this difference. Differing visions of justice will continue to but heads. This messiness would be embraced – we’d take on our divergent visions head on and build something better in the places they meet.

In my vision of justice, being able to take care of our selves and our communities isn’t determined by jobs or wealth or geography. People get the health care they need, the food they need, the love and care they need. Working to make a more just world, in the many different ways we vision it, is valued. And this work happens from the bottom up, not the top down, starting in the communities most impacted. We support each other. And this “we” isn’t determined by lines of nation.

My fantasy of justice isn’t very related to current political rhetoric. It’s much closer to the realm of desires that are supposed to be buried. When I think about the places I see glimpses of this, I think about art making, about kink that undoes harmful power dynamics by turning them into play, about dancing, about the tiny hands of a baby who hasn’t learned she’s supposed to hate.

It’s not a clear, concrete vision. But it’s something I have to look towards when doing social justice work, because I think the way things are right now is deeply wrong and I need something better to move towards. I know I’ve written some challenging pieces lately, calling out ways of doing political organizing that I think are failing us. It’s not out of some desire to play more radical than you – so not interested. It’s because I believe we have to continually strive to do this work better, to create justice in our struggle for justice.

There’s so much injustice in our world. I certainly wouldn’t want to be in the position of a president whose only options seem to be different ways to continue violence. But I can’t call injustice justice, either. I can’t celebrate a moment that activates for me and so many others the many injustices that have occurred in the past 10 years, and that were occurring for centuries before that – the vilification of racial and national others, torture and war in the name of peace. When I say justice it has to mean something better.

Affirm life.

We’ve got to carry each other now.

You are either with life, or against it.

Affirm life.

-Suheir Hammad, First Writing Since

What do you mean when you say justice? What do you vision? What is your alternative fantasy?

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9 Comments

  1. Posted May 4, 2011 at 3:51 pm | Permalink

    “Justice consists of treating equal things equally, and unequal things unequally.”
    -Aristotle

    “Justice is the condition that exists when all of the laws are enforced.”
    -Issac Asimov, The Caves of Steel

    Suppose you were making the decision: Should Bid Laden, who is complicit in uncountable murders and rapes, be left alone? Assuming he should not be left alone, should his compound be destroyed by airstrike? Should an effort be made to capture him? How much effort and risk should be taken to ensure a live capture vs. a dead capture vs. an unconfirmed kill?

    These questions have moral and political aspects, but the ultimate moral question was answered long ago: Anyone who initiates the use of violence against another forfeits any moral protection against the use of violence against themself.

    • Posted May 4, 2011 at 4:26 pm | Permalink

      But this question is far more complicated than “should we kill Osama bin Laden”. Because, as this article pointed out, I think, there have been all kinds of horrific consequences to our “war on terror” these last ten years that people all over the world have had to suffer in order for us to get to the point of being able to decide if we should take the shot at Osama. You say that “Anyone who initiates the use of violence against another forfeits any moral protection against the use of violence against themself”, but does that mean that we should achieve that end through any means necessary, and now that we finally have, we still get to call it justice?

    • Posted May 4, 2011 at 4:42 pm | Permalink

      Not to mention the fact that killing bin Laden does nothing to eliminate the circumstances that affect how someone like him comes about, anyway. I think having a just world would mean that we are all able to see the underlying causes of injustice and work to alleviate them rather than simply reacting to the symptoms because we think those symptoms are inevitable.

    • Posted May 5, 2011 at 10:41 am | Permalink

      Dan’s statement that:

      ‘Anyone who initiates the use of violence against another forfeits any moral protection against the use of violence against themself.’

      Seems a little odd at best.

      If this statement were true; we have to say that pretty much every leader in every country in the world forfeits any moral protection against the use of violence against themselves.

      And further; if a person steps in to prevent a genocide or any other form of attrocity, but does so by violent means, they too forfeit their own moral protection against violent repraisals. This cannot be right.

      Oh and rather worse it meanst that any soldiers that have seen active deployment also forfiet their “moral protection”, as do police officiers (the arguement goes that the criminal is as morally justified in fighting back as the officer is in preventing him doing so… which again, cannot be right.)

    • Posted May 6, 2011 at 8:42 pm | Permalink

      Uh, the robot who says that in the Asimov novel is not representative of Asimov’s views, any more than Macbeth’s behavior represents Shakespeare’s ideals. In fact, Asimov is using the line to show how limited a concept of justice the robot was programmed with. Asimov, an opponent of McCarthyism and segregation writing in the 1950s, certainly believed that there were such things as unjust laws.

  2. Posted May 4, 2011 at 5:04 pm | Permalink

    “In my vision of justice, harm isn’t answered with greater harm. It’s answered with opportunities to learn and grow, to take something awful and make something better.”

    Beautifully put, Jos, and I agree.

    And to tie it in with what Dan said, I don’t think the question at hand is whether killing OBL was morally justified, but whether it was an act of justice- there’s a difference. I don’t disagree with the decision, but I disagree with the celebrations in response to it. Will the death of Osama bin Laden lead to, in the words of Jos, “opportunities to learn and grow”? Will people’s lives be enriched as a result of this death? Will it bring us closer to ending this war? I guess we’ll see, but I doubt it.

  3. Posted May 5, 2011 at 1:36 am | Permalink

    I disagree here, as I said in another post.
    History teaches you that sometimes, it IS that simple. Killing enough of your enemy will eventually compromise their ability to maintain a fight. Napoleon knew when the keep it simple, and when the make it complex. Robert E. Lee was the same way. Nazi Germany started to falter during operation Barbossa when Hitler decided to meddle in strategic thinking, and add completely unnecessary “finesse” moves in an effort the quicken progress.

    Of COURSE peace is better, I’m not suggesting the concept of “revenge killer” is preferable, but I’m leaning towards Bin Laden’s death being a positive overall. Al Qaeda isn’t as well unified as they want you to know, and Bin Laden was holding them together by providing a centralized, internal chain of command. This is good because Al Qaeda doesn’t have ONE person in line to take over- they have 20. This is bound to cause friction between distant factions and the numerous leaders who believe themselves to be “the destined successor.”If this occurs, Al Qaeda will split into a “civil war” of sorts, and it’ll be over very quickly once that happens.

    You have to remember, they TRULY believe Allah has mandated their victory. We underestimate how important the psychological aspect of this war is. They think it’s impossible for them to lose, so long as they follow Allah’s will. So when they see their apparent “chosen one” killed, and they see Allah is failing to protect, and they see themselves losing, what are they going to think? Releasing the pictures would be morale h-bomb for Al Qaeda….you mean Allah didn’t smite Obama down??!?!?!?!? How is this possible?
    A group powered by strict religious fervor cannot survive with doubt, and no human is immune to doubts, EVER. There’s no magical genetic property in jihadist fighters that makes them immune to the simple ” I shoot you before you shoot me.” At some point, it does become impossible to overcome a size deficit, no matter how skilled the fighter. For example, although I believe many women are totally kick-ass and tough, I’m not going to pretend men don’t have a vast advantage in hand to hand combat. I remember reading an article where a female world heavyweight kickboxing champion was assaulted by a lone male on the smaller side than average. He was drunk, out of shape, and didn’t know a lick of martial arts. She was a full contact world champion in prime shape. She said she tried using all the dirty “street tricks” to get away- groin strikes, eye jabs,etc, yet she barely came out alive, had to go to hospital, and the man was unhurt enough to SPRINT away, and only when the police came. Do I like admitting it? No, but it’s true. Call me a blasphemer, but even as a feminist, and a girl that lifts weights and trains in martial arts, I know I’d definitely lose handily to well over 60% of 16 year old boys of average build and no training experience., even if I pulled all stops, lowblows, and training. I’ve seen it too many times. My gym is super badass and has a boxing ring where people spar a lot. No idea how it’s legal, but it’s there. The best of my group of friends who train in martial arts, all women, asked an average size high school boy to spar. He was about 15, not very muscular, never boxed, shes 24, strong, and experienced. She was definitely the better fighter, landing 10x the punches he did, he was bleeding a bit from the nose, but he didn’t go down once. He finally caught her with a decent but sloppy punch, and she went down. Also, you could tel he was holding back, which really annoyed her! Lol.
    [ Btw, quick note, these "women's self defense classes" do NOT work in a real fight, trust me. Applying those fast and precise groin shots on a bag is much easier than a live, aggressive opponent. Even hard, full contact sparring does NOT halfway equate to a live situation.It's much harder to kick accurately then you think, and even harder to make good contact. If kicking him in the groin was that simple, rape and assault would be less common than it is. I know you hear of success stories, but there many more failures. I've had friends hurt because of this. If you'd like to train martial arts, train BJJ, Krav Maga, and MMA. Stay far away from Karate and Tae Kwon Do. Better yet, carry a concealed handgun- that'll work.]

    The militants in the middle east have so many advantages- home field, language, cultural understanding, mastery of the terrain, ability to dictate the fight, the ability to blend in whenever they need to, etc. But they just aren’t going to take out an Abrams tank with an RPG, no matter how long they trained and how well they can shoot it. You could literally sit inside the tank for 8 hours and read the manual as they shoot at you over and over again to figure out how to shoot as they shoot at you over and over again , and you’re still going to win. Willpower helps, but is NOT enough to win- just ask every single country that lost a hard, long war. The only thing keeping radical militants going is extreme willpower. When that cracks, it’s over for them. The longer they see themselves losing ground, numbers, and leadership, the more and more they are to start doubting their chances. When the weaker team stops giving it all, it’s finished.

    I’m not saying I support the war, definitely not, nor do I think our little “Middle East project” is going to work. I also definitely concede, though I don’t like to, that the United States military has very poor pound-for-pound record. I mean seriously, farmers/heroin addicts with rusty Aks and badly damaged 70s era equipment against 650 billion dollars a year, spy drones, guided missiles, tanks, fight jets, high quality weapons and a 3:1 numerical advantage, and 10 years later it’s still going on? That’s due entirely to 2 things:
    1. Poor tactics
    2. Failure to recognize socio-economic and psychological aspects.

    The side with the ability to inflict more damage almost always wins unless the tactical, skill, or advantage deficit is HUGE.

    Killing Bin Laden is the kind of psychological tactical warfare that we need to pursue.
    So at the end I have to say the raid was a good thing, and releasing the pictures would be a good idea.
    This probably won’t be the most popular post, but then I love stirring controversy and mixing up the name tags every once in a while.

  4. Posted May 6, 2011 at 4:17 pm | Permalink

    Bravo! I feel that your article makes total sense. The definition below seems to sum up what justice IS and SHOULD be.

    Justice: ‘The quality of being fair and reasonable.’

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