THE academic mind is a wonderfully flexible thing, especially when there is space on a broadsheet page in need of filling. Take Monash University’s Gideon Boas, who asserts with co-author Pascale Chifflet in today’s Phage that the sudden demise of Osama bin Laden was a terrible thing because it denied the world an opportunity to see justice done before an international court of law.
[Osama] could have been forced to suffer the same ignominy as other tyrannous leaders in recent years - Slobodan Milosevic and Saddam Hussein in particular. Not only would this comport with common conceptions of justice, but it would allow the world to watch the terrorist mastermind rant, rave and ultimately wilt before live court cameras.
There you have it, today’s wisdom from the ivory tower, all clear-cut and specific and imbued with the moral urgency that animates so many common room rants about the need to drag real-world issues into the playground of academic abstraction.
But it is also worth noting that Boas held to a slightly different view not so long ago:
Karadzic's insistence on representing himself and his refusal to co-operate with the tribunal's schedule, coupled with the tribunal's weak stance on high-level accused such as Karadzic and Milosevic before him, make the resumption of this trial something of a concern.The use by these accused of their trials as a political soapbox, peddling their own brand of divisive and nationalist politics, has become a hallmark of international war crimes trials. This is something that may have been understandable in the Milosevic trial, the first of its kind, but the antics are wearing thin.
In the Karadzic instance, Boas recommended that Karadzic be denied the right to represent himself, that the court impose a tight rein on proceedings, timetable and evidence while keeping handy a gag to silence any disruptive and/or inflammatory speeches from the dock.
Let us give thanks that Boas, who served as “a senior legal officer at the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia” chose to make his career in the law, rather than turning out for military duty and rising to wield an assault rifle with the US Navy’s SEALs. Had it been his finger on the trigger, the world might by now be wondering where Osama’s disciples might seize the next batch of hostages in support of their idol's immediate release and, perhaps of even greater concern, how many general incitements to jihad would be heeded throughout the course of a trial whose success, if Boas’ advice were to be taken, could only be guaranteed if the defendant’s right to speak were curtailed.
That Boas will not now be journeying to The Hague to display his legal acumen and play a small part in Osama’s prosecution is very sad for him. For the rest of humanity, the practical sorts who that prefer aeroplanes and urban trains reach their destinations unexploded, it will be that unnamed SEAL whose jurisprudence makes the better sense.