My father once spent three months living with Moshe Dayan on his farm in Israel, making a documentary about Dayan’s archaeological collection. One night towards the end of his stay, when everyone was out of their gourds on hummus, my dad asked Dayan about the Israelis’ execution of Adolf Eichmann. ‘What really happened? I don’t believe that you would have that man in your power and just execute him cleanly.’ Dayan replied: ‘I’m not going to tell you what happened. But no, we didn’t just execute him.’
I’m not making any assertions here about what the Israelis did or did not do to Eichmann. But let’s say – in an entirely hypothetical scenario – that Eichmann was tortured before his death (which was my father’s interpretation of Dayan’s remark). For all my liberal pantywaist leanings, I would find it a comprehensible response to the almost incredible burden of terror, pain and grief for which Eichmann was personally, instrumentally responsible. As someone who has led a laughably comfortable life, I don’t think I have the right to condemn the actions of people who had lived through such horror and state-instigated sadism, and finally had the chance to extract some revenge.
And yet, like many of my fellow pantywaists – not least my hairy namesake in Lambeth Palace – my response to the execution of Osama Bin Laden has seen me picking fence splinters out of my arse. Here was a man who was unarmed, unwell, and had spent five years watching Cash in the Attic without so much as a telephone connection to distract him. I know of no evidence that he was actively commissioning further acts of violence (although do please put me right if you do). But I understand the impulse that made the US, despite ten years and a new administration, determined to exact unilateral punishment.
Most of the sources of my discomfort are predictable, and not worth rehearsing here: due process, international law, opposition to the death penalty. But there is one factor that is not so bound up with legal processes: revenge. Revenge is a powerful human instinct, but it is not a laudable one. Most of us can comprehend the vengefulness behind the killing of Bin Laden, but it is the naked celebration of vengefulness that is discomforting.
The extraction of revenge is what happens when communication, mediation, reason and kindness have failed. It represents the bleak defeat of the best human instincts, and the forces that prompt it are the same forces that lie behind all human violence, whether rationally justifiable or not. Bin Laden’s killing was a public performance of cruelty designed for public consumption, as were the horrifying acts that prompted it.
Anyone who lost people they cared about on 9/11 deserves a moment of catharsis, and I won’t condemn them for that. But nor will I laud the stone-cold execution of a burnt-out enemy combatant. Indulging the basest human instincts is something we all do, but it’s not a cause for celebration.