Culture At Large

Defining justice in Libya and Egypt

Robert Joustra

“Justice will be done.”

So said President Barack Obama after attacks in Libya resulted in four slain Americans, including Ambassador Chris Stevens. Obama has dispatched two warships and marines to Tripoli, even as the violence in Libya spreads to teetering Yemen, as crowds try to overrun the embassy in Cairo and, one fears, across more of the Middle East. Events are moving fast now, and we’re reassured in the midst of it that “justice will be done.” Will it? Can justice be done?

It is easy in moments of grief and shock to mistake justice for retribution. The justice of the American president, in this case, looks comforting, right. Maybe it is those things. Hard power dispatched to far-off places to make right wrongs suffered by an enemy is a familiar American trope. But in those moments, it’s worth recalling Daniel Philpott’s urgent question in his important new book, Just and Unjust Peace:

“In landscapes of past political injustice - piled and strewn with bones, rubble, and manifold wounds, emanating hatred, lamentation, revenge, resentment, and despair - what is the meaning of justice?”

Philpott is a serious Catholic asking practical questions. His research covers places such as Bosnia, Rwanda, the Congo, Iraq, Afghanistan and more. Over and over he finds that an integral part of justice being done is reconciliation. Reconciliation is not the work that starts after the marines and the warships have done their jobs, but intrinsic from the start. It is a fundamental category of justice.

This is a hard position to lobby after suffering violence. When Obama assures the American people that “justice will be done,” we are meant to feel he means retribution and restitution. The people who have perpetrated this act will be made responsible. Reconciliation certainly does not preclude restitution, but it does contextualize it. Justice demands that after the warships have raised anchor, the marines are lifted out and the drones buzz away, states, communities - maybe even radicals - need the possibility of building stable, flourishing societies. Reconciliation is not a discretionary luxury after withdrawal. It is incumbent on the justice of making war.

Reconciliation is not a discretionary luxury after withdrawal. It is incumbent on the justice of making war.

But what kind of reconciliation can there be with people like Osama bin Laden’s onetime mentor, Muslim cleric Abdul Majid al-Zindani, who fomented an attack on the American embassy in Yemen, where protestors burned two vehicles, stripped and burned the American flag and replaced it with a banner proclaiming the Islamic faith? What peace can there be with those who hate so much?

Answers range from the usual cosmopolitan navel gazing, asking why we are so hated, to a simple dismissal of reconciliation in this context. Many pundits over the last few days have pointed to the irresponsibility of making the incendiary amateur film that is the subject of many of the protests. It is true, of course, that such acts have responsibilities intrinsic to them. But it is a different thing from the making of such a film to storming embassies, or using the film as a pretext for a possibly pre-planned attack, killing diplomats and inciting violence. Justice also demands proportionality. 

The justice of war finally cedes that there may come times when there can be no peace, when war will be made, when dialogue and conversation will fail. But Philpott’s reminder is instructive as warships sail: justice cannot be done, cannot be finished, until humans flourish. It is a terrible thing that human flourishing may demand the making of war. But it is a necessary thing that the making of war never be left unfinished, as we have too long been in the habit of doing, of leaving an unjust peace. Justice will be done not only when the deaths of American diplomats have been avenged, but when a sustainable peace for human flourishing comes to unstable Libya, to teetering Yemen, to the worrying rhetoric of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt. In Philpott’s justice, we can then certainly agree with President Obama’s arresting invocation: “Justice will be done.”

What Do You Think?

  • How can Christian principles of justice and reconciliation guide policy during such international incidents?
  • How have you seen reconciliation take the place of retribution in your own life?

Topics: Culture At Large, News & Politics, World, Justice