Thoughts on the death of Osama bin Laden

May 2, 2011

I have felt disturbed since reading last night that US forces killed Osama bin Laden. Since then it has been sitting in the back of my mind but I had trouble putting words to my reaction. This afternoon I read an excellent blog post that helped clarify things for me: “Osama bin Laden is dead. One Buddhist’s response.” by Susan Piver. I wish I could quote the whole thing but I will restrain myself with these two parts that particularly hit home:

Was there even a hint of vengefulness or gladness at Osama bin Laden’s death? If so, that is a real problem. Whatever suffering he may have experienced cannot reverse even one moment of the suffering he caused. If you believe his death is a form of compensation, you are deluded.

When we hate, we cause hate. When we think we have won by vanquishing our enemy, we have lost. In killing Osama bin Laden, “they” lose because one of their leaders is gone. But we lose too, because we have deepened the causes and conditions that lead to more hatred and its consequences. This is not over.

I did not feel glad at his death. I felt sadness. And fear. And hopelessness.

I fear because I know that this death is not the end of anything. It will fuel the flames of hatred against the United States that bin Laden himself fueled. Do not be mistaken into a false sense of security: there is no doubt in my mind that there will be attempts at retaliation. It is just another peak in the vicious cycle of hatred and fear, of us versus them.

I feel hopeless that there will ever be an end to this vicious cycle. Hopeless that we will ever be able to move beyond us versus them. I do not believe that bin Laden was an isolated case, one sadistic individual, such that removing him removes all danger of terrorist attacks. No, rather I believe that he was part of a system, a system that the US helps create, in which the US is locked head to head with the terrorists from the Middle East. Another leader will rise to take his place and the cycle will continue. I feel hopeless that we will ever be able to break such a terrible cycle. Will we ever realize that violence is not a solution because it only fuels more violence?

And why do I feel sad? I feel sad because Osama bin Laden was a human being. I feel sad that we cannot see any solutions beyond violence and murder, that we are still stuck in the archaic attitude of an “eye for an eye.” I feel sad that societies do not have healthy ways of handling troubled individuals, ways that keep those individuals from turning into sadistic terrorists. I am sad that more people do not recognize the core humanity of every single human being on this earth.

Osama bin Laden will not harm any more people, but little else has changed. The United States still has an enemy. The people who died in the 9/11 attacks are not going to come back to life. The flames of hatred and fear continue to be fueled.

Lest we forget, we are all human. Every single one of us. I’ll end with this quote from Strength to Love, by Martin Luther King, Jr.:

Returning hate for hate multiplies hate, adding deeper darkness to a night already devoid of stars. Darkness cannot drive out darkness: only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate: only love can do that. Hate multiplies hate, violence multiplies violence, and toughness multiplies toughness in a descending spiral of destruction. … The chain reaction of evil — hate begetting hate, wars producing more wars — must be broken, or we shall be plunged into the dark abyss of annihilation.


Volunteering for restorative justice

December 13, 2008

In November I started volunteering as a community representative for the University of Colorado at Boulder restorative justice program. I have so far participated in four community accountability boards, which bring together a student offender, two facilitators, and two to three community representatives. The goal of the conference is to allow the student to tell their story fully without fear of repercussions, to discuss who may have been harmed by their actions and the impact those actions had on the greater community, and to come up with a list of concrete things the student can do to help repair those harms. The hope is also that by talking with and listening to non-student members of their community the student will feel a bit more connected to the greater community in which they live. The offenses for which students typically end up in restorative justice are things such as nuisance party tickets and inordinate noise tickets.

I like the concept behind restorative justice; the emphasis on repairing harm rather than punishing makes sense to me. I also think it is important to try to connect the student with members of the community and have them think about the harm they may have caused; if a student feels connected to the people in their community then hopefully they will be more likely to think about the impact of their actions in the future.

However, it is hard to tell whether the students are really taking away from the conference what we hope they are. The fact is that they are there because they got a ticket, meaning they broke the law. Sometimes it seems difficult to take the focus of the conference off of the fact of their law-breaking, and the student’s main motivation seems to be to not break the law again – not because they truly care about their neighbors so much as because they do not want to get another ticket. Although the community members in the conference, including myself, try to talk about the harms and discuss why noise can disturb someone, I question how effectively that message gets through to the student.

In addition, although the agreement items – things to repair the harm – we come up with are mutually decided upon with the student, I think it is challenging to keep them from sounding like punishments. In order to be fair to all the students who come through the program, there are guidelines for how many hours each student needs to do for a given type of ticket. Thus, we are in fact forcing something upon the student, not the exact look of the items but the need for a certain amount of them to exist. There is of course much flexibility within this process, and the student must agree to each item; we cannot force them to any particular thing. However, there is still, to me, an underlying slight sense of punishment, and I wonder if any of the students feel that way as well.

I am not sure how the concerns I have could be remedied. Part of what I am experiencing here may be simply the disappointment of an imperfect implementation of a perfect-sounding theory. I have only worked with two different sets of facilitators but I already see that their skill varies widely (I do not think the facilitator training is particularly extensive). The ability of the facilitator can certainly impact how effective the process is for the student.

I am thinking that the situation where a student has already received a ticket is not the ideal time to get them to connect with their community. It is of course natural that they will be concerned with not breaking the law again. I am imagining that some form of dialogue or community-building between students and their non-student neighbors, that is not tied to anybody having done something illegal, could be more effective at building bridges and encouraging the students to actually want to be respectful of their neighbor’s needs. When people know each other and care about each other to some degree they will first of all be more likely to not cause disturbances in the first place, and second of all be more capable of talking out and resolving conflicts that arise before it gets to the point of someone receiving a ticket. This is the ideal we should be striving for.

I think I would enjoy more working with people in situations unrelated to law-breaking, and in particular I think I would enjoy working on building connections between people. My idea of a neighborhood dialogue or community-building event is still nascent, but I intend to research if any such thing exists and think some more about the exact form such an event could take.

In the meantime, I will continue being a community representative for restorative justice conferences. My understanding is that the ideal model of restorative justice is one where the conference is called whenever one party causes harm to another, in a process detached from legal process, and it is only in our imperfect society that it is implemented within the legal system. Thus, despite its imperfections, I think restorative justice certainly has potential to make a difference, and is one step along the path to peace.

Thoughts on restorative justice

August 13, 2008

I just read The Little Book of Restorative Justice, by Howard Zehr, which provides a nice overview of the philosophy and principles of restorative justice. I had seen this term several places recently but did not know exactly what it meant. After reading this book and exploring some websites on the topic, I now have a better understanding of what restorative justice is. Overall, I think it is an exciting and positive direction for justice to be taking, but there are a few aspects I am slightly uncomfortable with.

First of all, what is restorative justice? Below, I will give an overview of what I see as the key points, but if you wish to read more about it, I recommend this article and Restorative Justice Online.

Given that much has been written about it, it is not easy to summarize in a few words. In his book, Zehr provides one possible working definition:

Restorative justice is a process to involve, to the extent possible, those who have a stake in a specific offense and to collectively identify and address harms, needs, and obligations, in order to heal and put things as right as possible.

One of the key philosophical underpinnings is that crime is a violation of individuals and relationships, rather than an offense against the state. The criminal justice system essentially ignores some of the major “stakeholders” in a crime; that is, the victim and immediate community, focusing entirely on making sure the offender gets what they deserve. Restorative justice, on the other hand, aims to address victim and offender needs and to involve the immediate stakeholders in an effort to “put things right.” Zehr lists the key questions that direct criminal justice versus restorative justice:

Criminal justice:

  • What laws have been broken?
  • Who did it?
  • What do they deserve?

Restorative justice:

  • Who has been hurt?
  • What are their needs?
  • Whose obligations are these?

The lens through which restorative justice looks at crime resonates with me as a much more productive way of handling crime than criminal justice. I am extremely uncomfortable with the criminal justice system. It is built around the concept of punishment, of giving people what they deserve. It makes little effort to help criminals transform into productive members of society, and it makes little effort to help victims heal and feel safe in their community. As Zehr points out, this attitude towards crime arises in part from the fact that criminal justice treats crime as an offense against the impersonal state – the breaking of laws. But in fact, crime is about individuals – one individual harmed another individual in some manner – and for true healing to occur it needs to be viewed through this lens. This is what restorative justice attempts to do.

One of the key aspects of a restorative justice approach is a facilitated encounter between victim and offender. This can take a few different formats, but the general goal is the same: to facilitate dialog between the victim and the offender and possibly community or family members. This allows each individual to express feelings in a safe space, allows the victim to receive answers to questions they may have, provides an opportunity for the offender to empathize with the victim, and provides a place for everyone to come to an agreement on an acceptable outcome. I must admit I am slightly skeptical about how a direct encounter can be healthy and helpful, particularly in a case where violence was involved. However, I read some case studies linked from the Restorative Justice Online website and it seems that it can indeed be a powerful and positive experience for both victim and offender. It does make sense to me, psychologically speaking, that it can be helpful to the victim’s healing process to be able to directly ask questions of the offender, if they can do so while feeling safe, and that it can help the offender understand the effect of their crime.

One thing I especially like about restorative justice is that it emphasizes respect for everyone, including the offender. The goal is not to stigmatize or antagonize the offender, but to help everyone heal. One of the many problems I see in the criminal justice system is that it uses an us vs. them model, placing the offender on the defensive. This is naturally going to make the offender angry towards the state and community, and does not encourager him or her to explore or address the causes of his/her behavior. In a restorative justice approach, the offender is encouraged to work on self-transformation and healing. This approach recognizes that offenders are human also, and may also have been hurt in the past.

The idea of dialog, or a “circle,” to discuss and resolve the offense makes a lot of sense to me, perhaps because I was raised in a family that held family meetings. When a conflict arose in our family, we discussed it civilly in a meeting, each having the opportunity to share their side of the story, and then coming to a resolution that everyone was happy with. The leap from the relatively trivial conflicts in my family to a situation where a murder has occurred is a little difficult for me to make, however. I like the concept that everyone is involved in addressing, understanding, and resolving the harmful behavior, but it is hard for me to understand exactly how it works and how it is effective for physically harmful behavior without seeing it in action.

One aspect of restorative justice that I am slightly uncomfortable with is the use of the phrase “obligations.” I am not sure why it bothers me; when Zehr breaks it down into the specific ways in which obligations come in to play, it makes sense. The offender has an obligation to make some sort of reparation towards their victim, and the community has an obligation to help both the victim and the offender to heal, and to work on preventing similar crimes in the future. Actually, I think it is the first part that bothers me, the obligation of the offender towards their victim. I don’t like the term because it sounds too close to requiring the offender to do something to “pay” for the crime, that is, to close to punishment. I don’t think this is the intention with the use of the word, but that is the association it evokes for me.

I also find that there is not enough of a focus on offender rehabilitation in restorative justice as I understand it. Zehr mentions several times the importance of addressing the needs of the offender, including the cause of the crime and what they need to not repeat the offense, but each time he mentions it, it sounds like an afterthought. The primary focus of restorative justice seems to be the needs of the victim. I agree that this is important, but I think the needs of the offender are equally important for repairing the break in relationships and for creating a safe community. I do not think that someone who has committed a crime can truly empathize and be able to re-integrate into the community until they receive rehabilitive help. People who commit crimes have most likely been harmed in some way in the past, and they need to heal from that past harm before they will be able to become fully productive members of society. Thus, I think that helping the offender heal is absolutely crucial in an effective justice system, and I do not feel that restorative justice focuses quite enough on that, at least as layed out by Zehr. However, it may be that in practice, it often does address the offender needs, or is completed by a program directed at that.

Restorative justice as it is currently used in practice, at least in this country, is often a complement to a traditional criminal justice process, rather than a substitute. I certainly think this is a step in the right direction, but I have radical ideals. I would do away with the criminal justice system, and particularly the prison system, in its entirety. I believe that the only reason to lock someone up is as a restraint of someone who is violent. However, we should be giving that person rehabilitation at the same time, to help them become less violent and able to reenter society. I believe that punishment is completely counter-productive. It will only serve to antagonize the offender and do them further psychological harm. Criminals need to be seen as troubled human beings who need help, and as a possible symptom of a larger societal problem (e.g. poverty), rather than as monsters to be put in their place. I believe that restorative justice is definitely one part of what is needed to implement this approach to crime.

Peacebuilding books

August 3, 2008

Friday evening I was browsing at a bookstore and two books on peacebuilding jumped out at me. One is The Third Side: Why We Fight and How We Can Stop, by William Ury, which is the book that the website I wrote about in my last post,, is based on. It looks like it goes in to much greater depth than the articles available on the website, so I am looking forward to reading it.

The other book that caught my eye is The Little Book of Restorative Justice, by Howard Zehr. I wasn’t familiar with the term “restorative justice” until relatively recently, and I’m still not sure I understand exactly what it is. I have my own opinions on our current system of “justice,” so I am curious to learn more about the approach of restorative justice.