Evening the Score in Afghanistan

Professor Thane Rosenbaum in The Wall Street Journal, October 20, 2009

Media Source

Evening the Score in Afghanistan
Revenge is a just motive for finishing a war they started.


With Osama bin Laden reportedly hobbling on dialysis near the Afghan border, and President Barack Obama heading to Norway to collect his Nobel Peace Prize, the American public is debating whether we should increase or draw down our troops in Afghanistan. Some argue that we should end the war altogether.

After all, it has been eight years since 9/11, and there has been no other terrorist attack on U.S. soil. Public attention has shifted toward national health care, grim job reports and home foreclosures. The War on Terror seems as relevant in the lives of most Americans as the Wars of the Roses.

Besides, we have a new president that the world—or at least Norway—expects to be a peacemaker. Afghanistan has suddenly become inconvenient, a war that doesn't fit the new-look American agenda.

Perhaps this is a good time to recall why we bombed and invaded Afghanistan in the first place. With all the rhetoric about what should happen next, the most obvious reason we can't leave before we finish what we started has been ignored: revenge.

Yes, revenge. It is a concept that makes many uncomfortable, and so it is often condemned. Yet it is instinctively necessary and fundamentally ingrained in the moral development of human beings. Neuroscientists and evolutionary psychologists have determined that revenge is hard wired in the brain. We all root for the revenge-seeker in novels and movies not because we are depraved, but because the avenger is right.

President George W. Bush framed our retaliation against the Taliban and al Qaeda in terms of justice, not revenge. But we all knew that it was also revenge that motivated our resolve and why, unlike Iraq, there was little objection to it. Americans were united in the belief that a debt for 9/11 had been created and payback was necessary.

This is the language and imperative of revenge, which should not be distinguished from justice itself. When properly identified and undertaken, revenge and justice are the same: There is no justice unless wrongdoers are punished and victims are avenged. Revenge puts the just deserts in justice. It is both legally and morally just for debts to be redeemed and lost honor reclaimed. Justice that does not result in the moral and emotional closure that accompanies revenge is no justice at all.

This is the ancient law of lex talionis—an eye for an eye— which is so often misunderstood as primitive bloodthirstiness. In fact, it is about reclaiming what is deservedly owed, measure for measure. No more can be taken in retaliation for loss, but equally important, no less. The redemption of the debt is inviolable, whether carried out by nations, tribal societies, or legal systems.

Clearly, the mass murder of nearly 3,000 lives on 9/11 is a substantial debt. After eight years in Afghanistan, with the ranks of al Qaeda depleted but metastasizing elsewhere, the Taliban resurgent, and bin Laden still at large, does anyone believe this debt has been repaid?

There are actually two ground zeros: one in lower Manhattan, and the other symbolically located in Afghanistan, where the demonic aspirations of al Qaeda were bred and where bin Laden may still be. Whether in Afghanistan, Pakistan or some other dark and murderous corner of the world, America simply cannot abandon the obligation of evening this score. Justice demands no less.

The scales of justice are still very much unbalanced when it comes to the morbid ledger of 9/11. In fact, they tilt grotesquely in favor of the organizers and abettors of this unpunished crime. The measure of our loss is still sadly unsettled. And we, therefore, remain unavenged.

The decision about what to do in Afghanistan is not simple. The White House must confront the reality that, for many Americans, urgent economic matters at home are more important than maintaining the costs of the war in Afghanistan.

There is also the American public's short-term memory. The strategic objectives for this war have been forgotten. But even worse is the disregard for the moral justification for why we aimed our rage and grief at Afghanistan. This had as much to do with revenge as it did with justice—a reason that has yet to be publicly acknowledged.

Before Mr. Obama goes to Norway to affirm that he is a man of peace, he should not forget that we still owe a duty to the dead. There is much unfinished business when it comes to those responsible for 9/11.

Mr. Rosenbaum, a novelist and law professor at Fordham University, is the author of "The Myth of Moral Justice" (Harper Perennial, 2005).