When George Zimmerman inevitably gets himself killed, I’m sure I won’t be alone in feeling happy about it, in feeling that a standing offense to the concept of justice has been belatedly mitigated. My feeling that day will not, however, mean that I “support” road rage, or bar fights, or suicide by cop, or doing dangerous stunts on a reality show because you have no other way to make money, or whatever concrete incident — almost certainly not a legal trial followed by a government-ordered execution — brings about his inevitable death by violence. Nor, indeed, would my gladness at his public execution, were such a thing to occur, mean that I “support” the death penalty, much less the US’s specific racist implementation of it.
I’m sure we all have people about whom we have similar feelings: Darren Wilson, for instance, or Donald Trump. Or Osama bin Laden — a wealthy nihilist who committed mass murder and bragged about it. I once wrote about how bin Laden deserved to die, and I got a lot of pushback. It seemed to me that a lot of that pushback came from empty formalism, of moralistic (“we shouldn’t celebrate anyone‘s death!”) and liberal (“justice can only ever happen in a courtroom!”) kinds, or in some especially tedious cases, both at once. The most serious responses, though, pointed out the extreme fucked-up-ness of the US strike on bin Laden — a concern I shared, and continue to share. Yet it still remains the fact that one fewer wealthy nihilist is out walking around, an outcome I can applaud without “supporting” the means.
And now, here’s where we make an even more controversial turn. You remember how after 9/11, Americans were appalled to see people in other countries celebrating? I think that here, too, it would probably be a mistake to conflate their jubilation at an outcome — the United States, the mighty heartless conquerer, has been knocked down a peg! — and “support” for the concrete methods employed to attain that outcome. If you would feel glad if George Zimmerman one day woke up dead — if you, like so many, were disappointed when reports that he was “shot in the face” did not produce the result common sense might infer from such a description — then maybe, just maybe, you have the capacity to empathize with that jubilation. Maybe we can all admit that we’re human and that our gut-level sense of justice is often more retributive than restorative, and that sometimes we take what satisfaction we can get, without necessarily endorsing everything that led up to that satisfaction.