Friday, February 13, 2009

Multiple Visions of Justice

As mentioned in a previous blog entry, an integral part of the storyline for this season of 24 involves the fictional African state of Sangala, where acts of genocide akin to those committed during the Rwandan conflict are being perpetrated under the military junta of General Juma. There are many elements to this storyline which implicate international law and, indeed, the domestic laws and policies of the United States. Two conversations regarding justice, however, are of particular interest for the issues they raise.

The first conversation takes place between former Prime Minister Matobo of Sangala and the American president, Allison Taylor. Matobo is regarded by the US as the legitimately elected prime minister of Sangala. The conversation I wish to address takes places in the Oval Office, where Matobo and Taylor are discussing the conditions of US support for Matobo’s forces in Sangala. At the end of the conversation, President Taylor is adamant that General Juma be tried in a forum viewed as legitimate by the international community and not be subjected to any form of retributive justice when the joint US/Sangalan operations to remove Juma and reinstate Matobo are complete. Prime Minister Matobo is at first opposed to this idea, preferring the idea of handling Juma in a more retributive manner than that envisioned by President Taylor. However, when it appears that the issue of how to handle Juma after the joint operations are complete is a near deal-breaker, Matobo agrees to try Juma in the manner requested by President Taylor.

The second conversation takes place several episodes later and in entirely different circumstances. Through a plot engineered by Jack Bauer and his associates, Matobo agrees to be handed over to Dubaku, a senior member of General Juma’s junta who is in the US to ensure that the US government does not in fact provide assistance to Matobo. The plan is for Matobo and his wife to be handed over to Dubaku so that Bauer and his compatriots can recover a device being used in an attempt to blackmail President Taylor into calling off US military assistance to Sangala, and then to rescue the Matobos before Dubaku can harm them. In the face-to-face meeting between Matobo and Dubaku – the first that the audience has seen – we learn some of the history between these two men. Dubaku scornfully recounts that their last meeting was in the Prime Minister’s residence, accompanied by a very good wine. Dubaku reminds Matobo that he gave him the chance to retain that post, be a part of the junta and have a lucrative and long-lived career as Prime Minister. However, Matobo refused this offer and insisted on carrying through with democracy in Sangala; a decision which led to his ouster at the hands of General Juma, Dubaku and their like-minded associates. After this bitter reminiscence, Dubaku then informs Matobo that they will go home to Sangala together and that Matobo will face justice under the military junta there.

Individually, these conversations are of note for the way in which they use justice as a coercive tool. In both situations, a particular notion of justice is advanced as an idea to which Matobo must submit, although the punishment for failing to do so is far graver in his conversation with Dubaku than with President Taylor. Together, however, the conversations offer several important messages about concepts of justice.

The first message is the idea of “home” or “traditional” versus “international” justice. In the conversation between Matobo and Taylor, we see that Matobo himself is not above imposing a traditional style of justice for those who deposed him and perpetrated genocide in Sangala. However, this idea of justice is scorned by President Taylor, who insists that an internationally accepted system of justice be used to punish those responsible for the Sangalan genocide. Thus, Matobo must choose whether to gain the support of the American – and presumably international – community by complying with these norms or to fight without outside support and impose a more traditional sense of justice if his forces win. The choice is clear to Matobo; sometimes the needs of the immediate are more important than a hypothetical future. Meanwhile, in the second conversation there is no choice of justice per se. Dubaku’s threat of sending Matobo to Sangala for judgment is a threat to send him to his death because the system of justice employed by the junta is shaped by the message of the junta, which is that everything Matobo stood for is wrong. This reinforces a scene from the preview 24 movie, in which newly indoctrinated child soldiers are told by Dubaku that their parents have made them weak and that the government, as the agent of the white oppressor, has made the state weak, but that together they could defeat these forces and be strong. Thus, in these two conversations we see three ideas of justice and it’s purpose, each a bit murkier and less credible than the other.

The second message is that of legitimacy through justice and judicial systems. In the first conversation, President Taylor stresses the importance of an internationally accepted method of justice for Juma and his associates as a path to legitimacy for Matobo and a democratic Sangala. Although Matobo might have seen another system of justice as a way to better integrate the democratic state with the beliefs of his society, he accepted Taylor’s request pragmatically. In so doing, however, Matobo also indicated that he was willing to accede to a standard of judicial legitimacy that was recognized by the international community. In the second conversation, the use of justice as a source of legitimacy takes on a new meaning. Here, justice – at least that of Juma’s junta – is used as a threat against Matobo. More than a threat, however, the idea of subjecting Matobo to the Juma regime’s form of justice is an attempt to assert the Juma regime’s legitimacy over the citizens of Sangala, especially those who are still loyal to Matobo. It is a means of targeting those associated with Matobo as well, and making them criminal for the purposes of the existing law. Unlike Matobo, the Juma regime is not concerned about the international community’s view of its justice system; rather, it is concerned with using the justice system created by the regime to eradicate dissent within its borders. Thus, with these conversations, 24 has created two frames within which justice will be established and invoked in Sangala.

For more information on 24, see:

Keywords: 24, Jack Bauer, justice, international trials, military regimes.

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