The Magazine

Justice

May 16, 2011, Vol. 16, No. 33 • By WILLIAM KRISTOL
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Here’s what we posted on our website shortly after President Obama finished speaking Sunday night, May 1:

Congratulations to all those, from the president on down, who are responsible for the achievement of tracking down and killing Osama bin Laden. The wheels of justice may sometimes turn slowly, but turn they do—with the help of the United States armed forces and intelligence personnel. Justice has been done.

This remains the key point, one that deserves reiteration before getting to all the (necessary) analysis about the consequences and implications of bin Laden’s death: Justice has been done. It has been done by the exercise of American military power. Sunday night, to put it in terms bin Laden would have understood, Justice rode a strong horse. Or, to change metaphors, there’s a reason Justice is traditionally portrayed in the West as carrying a sword. Justice needs to be able and willing to use the sword. Nor is it an accident that the seal of the United States depicts a bald eagle carrying thirteen arrows as well as an olive branch. American liberal democracy rightly inclines toward the olive branch. But, confident in its principles, well-constituted for energetic (and limited) government, our democracy is also capable of wielding power effectively against our enemies and the enemies of civilization. The British prime minister William Gladstone once said, “The resources of civilization are not yet exhausted.” By finding and killing Osama bin Laden, the United States showed that the resources of civilization are alive and well.

They are alive and well because President Obama did not choose in this instance to “lead from behind”—a term Noemie Emery correctly characterizes as “a paradox and punch line, not a doctrine.” Obama led, and he acted, and he acted decisively. And is it too obvious to point out that this admirable and effective act was not particularly “progressive”? The action against bin Laden was militaristic, unilateral, and secretive. It was non-U.N.-approved, non-NATO-consultative, non-Miranda-compliant, and non-politically correct (though we must say that we’re sympathetic to the complaints of American Indians about giving bin Laden the code name Geronimo, who was in many ways a noble and impressive figure, and a part of the American story).

The act’s protagonists were non-gender-diverse, pre-Don’t-Ask-Don’t-Tell-reform, and had undergone a notably nonprogressive training. Attorney General Eric Holder and his merry band of lawyers who are proud to have defended al Qaeda terrorists seem not to have been in the loop (the Justice Department is not represented in the now-famous photo of the gathering in the Situation Room, for instance). Indeed, the operation was based on information developed by intelligence professionals of the kind Eric Holder wants to prosecute, and planned and carried out by servicemen unaccompanied by a JAG.

Will the president draw the conclusion that the cause of justice and our national interest—and, one might add, his own political interests—is well served when he leaves behind his progressive prejudices, and embraces unapologetic and energetic American leadership? Or will he decide that this was just a one-off event, and return to progressively leading from behind, both at home and abroad? We hope for the former, and fear the likelihood of the latter.

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