Retribution is right


In this time of tragedy and war, many suggestions have been made as to actions the United States should take. Around Harvard Law School, I have heard students advocate such things as withdrawing our support from Israel, going over to the Middle East to “get all the Arabs” and not responding with any violence whatsoever because “an eye for an eye leaves the whole world blind.”

While it is great to brainstorm such ideas, the actions we decide to take must be very carefully considered. The world is watching us, and what we do now will send a message, set an example and trigger a series of international events. As a nation, we need to make sure we do what is right.

So what is right? Assuming there is a “right” (relativists will have difficulty reading beyond this point), the right action is that which embodies both justice and mercy in the achievement of our two main objectives: 1) bringing those who were involved with initiating this attack to justice, and 2) preventing similar attacks from happening in the future.

Given these objectives, the policy that should guide our response is retribution. Despite popular belief among Harvard Law students, retribution is not vengeance, bloodthirstiness or a desire to flatten any country whose name ends with -stan. Retribution is a policy of restraint. The retributive law of an “eye for an eye” was intended to guarantee that punishments would be proportional to their crimes. This axiom does not mean “a life for an eye” or “a hair for an eye.”

Retribution is also not “overreacting,” as one fellow law student suggested at the Law School’s panel discussion last Thursday by comparing our loss of “5,000” to the loss of “15,000” in India’s earthquake. While the loss of human life in both situations is tragic, the difference between the two is glaringly obvious: One was beyond human control and the other was caused solely by human malice.

In fact, the intent behind this attack is precisely what makes retribution warranted and necessary. If a plane had accidentally hit the World Trade Center, our loss would be just as tragic, but we would not seek retribution. There would be nobody to bring to justice and no reason to believe similar accidents would occur in the future.

This attack, however, was no accident. It was calculated. It was deliberate. It was intended to cripple us politically and financially. It was meant to take thousands of innocent lives. It was supposed to cause us unprecedented pain and suffering. It was premeditated, cold-blooded murder. In fact, the underlying intent behind this attack is precisely what justifies and requires a response of retribution.

Retribution calls for the actions that most closely achieve the goals of bringing the perpetrators to justice and preventing similar attacks in the future without exceeding the boundaries of restraint. For example, taking innocent lives, either intentionally or recklessly, is unacceptable in this case because it exceeds retribution and constitutes an attack, not a response. On the other hand, assassination of bin Laden and his operatives is legitimate and warranted because it does not exceed the boundaries of retribution.

Many Harvard Law students oppose the idea of such assassinations, or any form of retribution whatsoever. While pacifism is generally commendable, in this situation it is simply wrong. In the words of fellow law student Kanyiki Tshibaka: “The blood of American martyrs is crying out for justice. And justice will not be accomplished by turning the other cheek because it is not ours to turn.

“Our lives were not obliterated by the events of September 11th. Good can never make peace with evil, it can only destroy it. And sometimes that requires a violent response.

“There is a time for righteous retribution, and now is such a time. The blood of the innocent who perished on Tuesday will not have been spilt for nothing.”

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