OBL and DSK: fame, infamy, and due process

It’s probably quite unusual that two high-profile men should enter the vortex of publicity and thence become known almost iconically and universally by three-letter acronyms. But Dominique Strauss-Kahn and Osama Bin Laden have more in common than merely being shortened to DSK and OBL. They are also joined by their unhappy relationship to the due process of law and justice. They have both become hate figures, and that hatred has been used to justify a cavalier approach to the assessment of their guilt in the one case, and the administration of punishment in the other. I’ve dealt elsewhere with the case of Bin Laden, and why I believe that the extreme nature of his crime does not justify extra-judicial assassination. The case of Strauss-Kahn, languishing on suicide watch amid calls for his immediate resignation as Managing Director of the International Monetary Fund, is obviously very different, but it also raises important questions of justice and its prosecution in cases which involve famous people, and emotive accusations.

When I wrote about Bin Laden, I felt obliged to spell out that I was not offering an apologia for his appalling crimes. It saddens me that the very act of calling for justice to be both done and seen to be done is routinely interpreted as offering some kind of succour to wickedness. In the OBL case, there was no dispute about culpability since he had claimed and revelled in his guilt. That is the sharpest distinction between his case and that of DSK. Strauss-Kahn has not been found guilty of anything, but you wouldn’t know that from some of the media coverage of the last few days. However, in order to avoid any doubt, to refute the ridiculous idea that insisting upon innocence until guilt is proven in his case is tantamount to condoning sexual abuse, let me make myself crystal clear.

The charge on which Strauss-Kahn is indicted is of the utmost seriousness. It is not the forgiveable peccadillo of an over-active Gallic lover. The victim of this allegation, if it is proven, has been through an appalling and traumatic experience. Rich and powerful men have no more right to jump naked from their baths, pursue women half their age, and impose their sexual will, than does anyone else. If that is what happened, Strauss-Kahn deserves all the opprobrium, all the cataclysmic fall from grace, all the punishment that will come his way. But there is that small word, “if”.

When a story breaks such as this, so full of symbolism, so redolent of the “mighty” having been “put down … from their seat”, it is perhaps inevitable that the desire for it to be true overtakes our willingness to wait and see if it is true. And the heady mixture of sex and power readily intoxicates us. But we should resist. The facts that the accused is rich, that he is powerful, that he is so central to world economic affairs at this particular moment, that the victim is by contrast poor and weak, that the alleged crime is so heinous, none of these things should be permitted to deflect us from insisting on innocence first, and guilt second and only if proven.

The images of Strauss-Kahn in the dock, dishevelled and unshaven. The interviews with his lawyer protesting his innocence, and those with the lawyer of the accuser underlining her trauma. The notoriety of the prison to which he has been sent pending trial. The drama of his being placed on suicide watch. These are not elements in the unfolding of justice. Rather they are the plot-lines of an unsavoury soap opera; they should be kept for after a verdict has been delivered, and not before.

Thus we unite OBL and DSK in an extraordinary way, not because their crimes, or allegations, have even the remotest things in common, but because in both cases justice is put on the back burner in favour of drama, prurience, and a good old-fashioned morality play.

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