Justice is an interesting word. It serves as the front man for a number of different and sometimes incompatible concepts: revenge, retribution, restoration, fate, fairness, equality. In everyday use it often boils down to a sense of cosmic righteousness, a position that takes the universe (or a god) to be a fair and neutral arbiter, an automatic karma balancer, or, at a minimum, a provider of fate.
Since justice has so many meanings, it's not always clear what someone is trying to express when they use the word. Making matters worse, even when parties agree on the definition, they often disagree on the act necessary to make it so. It's almost universally agreed, at least in the U.S., that justice in the case of murder has a heavy shade of retribution about it, yet capital punishment remains contentious.
Other basic questions abound. Does justice necessarily demand only moral actions in its name? Some of the conceptualizations seem to explicitly disregard the morality of the action that brings about a course of justice. Revenge has a long history with the entire spectrum moral behavior, while restoration seems to have a specifically moral nature about it. Let us not even dive into the disagreements of what is or is not moral behavior. And it might be argued the other way around, that what is moral is, by its nature, just. Of course, that doesn't rule out those acts which are amoral or immoral.
It turns out that justice is a tricky word, its use often leading us to believe we are dishing out universal truths while instead merely expressing the particular dynamic of justice that fits our feelings best in the moment. Therefore, I don't put too much emphasis on the cries that justice has been done in the killing of Osama bin Laden. We are still in the early hours and days after his death, and the immediate reaction is understandable, particular from those personally affected by 9/11. His death has all the feelings of personal revenge: we, the U.S., have been furiously pursuing (haven't we?) bin Laden for a decade, using every means at our disposal to find, capture or kill, and to close the book on the man who planned the largest terrorist attack in recent American history.
There is also a sense of restoration in the street celebrations. Restoration of pride, of honor, of self-worth. This is not personal restoration, but nationalism made personal, a sense of self derived from national esteem. I don't share in these feelings, indeed, I find them dangerous and scary, but I do understand from where they come, and share the desire to find pride in my home country. Maybe the living victims of 9/11 feel a sort of closure, in which case it's hard to argue bin Laden's death is not a form of restorative justice.
Other definitions of justice fail to find any purchase in the killing of bin Laden. In particular, equality seems to have been left hanging. Equality has always been the rump of the litter of American values, the youngest child, whining and grandstanding for attention. Yet, despite all their blind spots (and they were far more blind than not on the issue), the founding fathers understood that the other meanings of justice would flounder without some guarantees of equality in how they are carried out. The American justice system has often failed to deliver such equality, but most Americans agree that, in abstract, that all suspects should have their day in court, their chance to defend themselves, and more importantly, that charges must be proved in a court of laws, not the public sphere of emotion and rage.
We have consistently failed to apply that conceptualization of justice in the "War on Terror." In that way, bin Laden's death, assuming capture wasn't a real priority (so far the evidence indicates that there weren't strong intentions to take him alive), is not all that different from the targeted killing of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi in 2006, or the numerous other killings of accused terrorists over the last ten years. Obama has even accepted the proposition that the American government has the right to kill U.S. citizens who are merely accused of providing material support for terrorists. Equality, once it starts to decay, has a tendency to further unravel.
Trying bin Laden in court would have been a mess. Finding a fair and impartial jury would likely have proven impossible in the U.S., and trying him in the Hague politically untenable. I would have enjoyed seeing the evidence against bin Laden laid bare in court. Sadly, much the evidence against him has been tainted by torture. However, the inability to take a particular course of action does not magically render other sets of actions just. I don't find bin Laden's death just any more than I would find the targeted killing of George W. Bush just. Both took actions that directly led to the deaths of thousands, both deserve long trials where their crimes are brought fully to light. But all of that has to come before death. After death there is only history, and there's often no justice in that.