Archive for May, 2011|Monthly archive page

Was Killing Osama Bin Laden Just?

“For the United States, a Long-Sought Prize; for Obama, a Welcome Victory.” The New-York Times headline last week captures a critical truth about Bin Laden’s assassination: it carries more symbolic than strategic significance:

How much his death will affect Al Qaeda itself remains unclear. For years, as they failed to find him, American leaders have said that he was more symbolically important than operationally significant because he was on the run and hindered in any meaningful leadership role. And yet, he remained the most potent face of terrorism around the world and some of those who played down his role in recent years nonetheless celebrated his death.

Killing of any kind, even of someone as wicked as Osama bin Laden, should give us pause, as Patrick Clark observes over at catholicmoraltheology.com. In the Christian tradition, it is by no means a foregone conclusion that wicked people should be killed for their transgressions. Operative here are Jesus’ words in the Sermon on the Mount:

You have heard it said ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth fora tooth.’ But I say to you, Do not resist an evildoer. But if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also.

Thomists, following Augustine, do not take this passage as commanding passivism or non-resistance. Aquinas holds that is just to kill sinners “if a man be dangerous and infectious to the community, on account of some sin . . . in order to safegard the common good” (II-II, Q. 64, art. 2). In a bit of a departure from Augustine, Thomas also allows for killing in self-defense:

It is not necessary for salvation that a man omit the act of moderate self-defense in order to avoid killing the other man, since one is bound to take more care of one’s own life than of another’s. But as it is unlawful to take a man’s life, except for the public authority acting for the common good, as stated above (Article 3), it is not lawful for a man to intend killing a man in self-defense, except for such as have public authority, who while intending to kill a man in self-defense, refer this to the public good, as in the case of a soldier fighting against the foe, and in the minister of the judge struggling with robbers, although even these sin if they be moved by private animosity.

This passage forms the basis of the just war tradition which allows Christians to engage in warfare for the protection of the common good. There are, however, important limitations to the circumstances in which such killing might be justified, patricularly regarding proportionality and the protection of the innocent (II-II, Q. 64.2, ad. 1).

Thus, if killing Osama bin Laden was simply an act of self-defense, it would seem like a relatively unproblematic act in the Thomistic moral tradition. But it was not self-defense that most motivated his execution:

Mr. Obama called Mr. Bush on Sunday evening to tell him that Bin Laden had been killed. Shortly after Mr. Obama’s announcement at the White House, Mr. Bush issued a statement congratulating his successor, saying, “No matter how long it takes, justice will be done.”

What is this justice that has been done? I suggest it is rather vengeance that has been accomplished, “the infliction of a penal evil on one who has sinned,” as Aquinas defines it (II-II, Q. 108 art. 1). It is vengeance that has sent people dancing in the streets all over this country (or in the libraries as the case may be at my own Boston College, where amid celebrations, exams and papers still have to get done):

“I don’t know if it will make us safer, but it definitely sends a message to terrorists worldwide,” said Stacey Betsalel, standing in Times Square with her husband, exchanging high fives. “They will be caught and they will have to pay for their actions. You can’t mess with the United States for very long and get away with it.”

For Aquinas, vengeance is not evil in and of itself, but its moral evaluation depends on the mind of the avenger. If the intention of the avenger is evil of the person on whom she takes vengeance, the act is rendered unlawful,

because to take pleasure in another’s evil belongs to hatred, which is contrary to the charity whereby we are bound to love all men. Nor is it an excuse that he intends the evil of one who has unjustly inflicted evil on him, as neither is a man excused for hating one that hates him: for a man may not sin against another just because the latter has already sinned against him, since this is to be overcome by evil, which was forbidden by the Apostle, who says (Romans 12:21): “Be not overcome by evil, but overcome evil by good.”

Vengeance is only justified when the intention is good, “for instance that the sinner may amend, or at least that he may be restrained and others be not disturbed, that justice may be upheld, and God honored.” Moreover, vengeance, when motivated by an upright will, is actually a special virtue, reckoned under the virtue of justice: “Man resists harm by defending himself against wrongs, lest they be inflicted on him, or he avenges those which have already been inflicted on him, with the intention, not of harming, but of removing the harm done. . . Therefore vengeance is a special virtue” (II-II, Q. 108, art. 3).

I think there is a relatively good chance that a Thomist could justify vengeance in this case. Thomas even goes so far as to say that killing out of vengeance can be profitable to the common good. Notice, though, the contingency of these two sentences. Merely because vengeance can be justifiable does not mean it ought to be sought out. The justification of an act of vengeance depends on whether or not the act was prudent.

I want to suggest that in this case, killing Osama bin Laden was not prudent. First of all, it seems he was killed with relatively little resistance. With our highly-trained Navy Seals responsible for the mission, there is no reason that I can see that he could not have been captured and tried. Bin Laden’s capture could have prevented criticisms like the ones we see from his own family, published recently in the NYTimes:

If he has been summarily executed then, we question the propriety of such assassination where not only international law has been blatantly violated but USA has set a very different example whereby right to have a fair trial, and presumption of innocence until proven guilty by a court of law has been sacrificed on which western society is built and is standing when a trial of OBL was possible for any wrongdoing as that of Iraqi President Sadam Hussein and Serbian President Slobodan Miloševic’. We maintain that arbitrary killing is not a solution to political problems and crime’s adjudication as Justice must be seen to be done.

Moreover, Osama bin Laden’s execution resulted in the death of non-combatants, including a woman. The Christian tradition has a precedent that in executing vengeance, the “wheat should not be uprooted with the chaff,” and if the innocent suffer along with the guilty, vengeance ceases to be virtuous. Aquinas acknowledges that vengeance may be executed on a populace that bears a common guilt, thus providing a possible justification of the killing of a non-combatant in the execution, but again, only if in conformance with the demands of prudence:

On the other hand, if it is not the whole but only a part of the multitude that has sinned, then if the guilty can be separated from the innocent, vengeance should be wrought on them: provided, however, that this can be done without scandal to others; else the multitude should be spared and severity foregone. The same applies to the sovereign, whom the multitude follow. For his sin should be borne with, if it cannot be punished without scandal to the multitude: unless indeed his sin were such, that it would do more harm to the multitude, either spiritually or temporally, than would the scandal that was feared to arise from his punishment (II-II 108.1, ad. 5).

It is not clear to me that Osama bin Laden’s death has not caused a scandal, especially if the remarks made by his family are commonplace, as I suspect they are:

I Omar Ossama Binladin and my brothers the lawful children and heirs of the Ossama Binladin (OBL) have noted wide coverage of the news of the death of our father, but we are not convinced on the available evidence in the absence of dead body, photographs, and video evidence that our natural father is dead. Therefore, with this press statement, we seek such conclusive evidence to believe the stories published in relation to 2 May 2011 operation Geronimo as declared by the President of United States Barrack Hussein Obama in his speech that he authorized the said operation and killing of OBL and later confirmed his death. . .

In making this statement, we want to remind the world that Omar Ossam Binladin, the fourth-born son of our father, always disagreed with our father regarding any violence and always sent messages to our father, that he must change his ways and that no civilians should be attacked under any circumstances. Despite the difficulty of publicly disagreeing with our father, he never hesitated to condemn any violent attacks made by anyone, and expressed sorrow for the victims of any and all attacks. As he condemned our father, we now condemn the president of the United States for ordering the execution of unarmed men and women.

Relying on the political and moral realism of Aquinas, we don’t get clear answers to the justifiability of Bin Laden’s execution. We get no categorical statements like “Killing is always wrong” or “Christians should never pursue vengeance.” Both killing and vengeance have a place in Aquinas’ moral system. I am just not so sure they have a place in the recent execution of Osama Bin Laden. Regardless, as a Thomist, I am forced to sit uneasy with the president’s decision to call for his execution and not respond, as he did, with certainty about the justice of his actions.

Putting the “Sapor” Back in “Sapientia”

A couple of weeks ago, I assigned my students one of the hymns by the Wesley brothers to talk about Protestant challenges to the Eucharist (“Victim Divine, Thy Grace We Claim”). In their journals, many of my students reflected on how refreshing it was to read a hymn, even one that was so richly theological and complex as this one. As one student wrote, “Songs can be theology too.”

Indeed they can. This is one of the reasons I love studying the Medievals like Thomas Aquinas. Although Aquinas is known most for his Summa Theologica (which I think is a remarkably beautiful work even if it is intellectually rigorous), Aquinas also did theology in other forms besides the Scholastic disputational method we see in the Summa. For example, he wrote commentaries on Scripture, sermons, prayers, and yes, even songs. One of the most beautiful and most commonly sung is the “Tantum Ergo”:

Tantum ergo Sacramentum
veneremur cernui:
et antiquum documentum
novo cedat ritui:
praestet fides supplementum
sensuum defectui.
Genitori, Genitoque
laus et iubilatio,
salus, honor, virtus quoque
sit et benedictio:
procedenti ab utroque
compar sit laudatio.
Amen.
Down in adoration falling,
Lo! the sacred Host we hail;
Lo! o’er ancient forms departing,
newer rites of grace prevail;
faith for all defects supplying,
where the feeble sense fail.
To the everlasting Father,
and the Son who reigns on high,
with the Holy Ghost proceeding
forth from Each eternally,
be salvation, honor, blessing,
might and endless majesty.
Amen.

It is uncommon today for a theologian to do more than dapple in such a range of theological genres as someone like Aquinas, as my colleague Jana Bennett bemoans over at catholicmoraltheology.com. There are a lot of reasons for this (which she identifies), including time, ability, and tenure track requirements. One reason, however, that we do not witness the same aesthetic pursuit in academic theologians today as we did in the Medieval period may have to do with the way we think of wisdom.

In our post-Kantian world, wisdom is purely a matter of intellect. The wise person is the smart person, the educated person, the person who can make and win rigorous intellectual arguments. For the Medievals, wisdom is an intellectual virtue, but it is an intellectual virtue with a strong affective component. Take, for example, the following discussion from Denys the Carthusian’s Prefatory Questions on the Sentences:

Just as, then, those heroic men who are perfect in love, through the gift of wisdom that they have according to a perfect degree, are as it were the counselors, and secretaries, and the familiar friends of God, from whom they are strongly illuminated as they stand in a certain contact with the sun of uncreated Wisdom, and who by a supernatural and abundant internal taste know and taste the divine things to be believed and who judge well and certainly about the same things through the conformity and connaturality of their affections for them, so through the gift of understanding by which they are adorned to a perfect degree they understand most clearly, most certainly and most subtly those things that belong to our faith, and they also understand the connections and order of things to be believed and the supernatural reasonableness of the Catholic truth. . . Hence, this illumination is not given only to students in theology and to all of them, or to people who have great natural abilities, but to those who more stand out in their purity of heart and in their charity. One of these is the holy Brother Giles, who did not with say ‘I believe in God’ but rather “I know God.’ And another was the Seraphic Saint Francis.

Wisdom, it seems, is not just based in the intellect, but is based rather in “a supernatural and abundant taste of divine things to be believed.” Denys is appealing here to the etymology of wisdom [sapientia] which is rooted in sapor [to taste].

For Aquinas, wisdom is the gift of the Holy Spirit discussed in the context of his treatise on charity, a virtue rooted in the will. Aquinas treats wisdom both as an intellectual virtue (and intellectual gift), and as virtue with a strong affective component, rooted not just in the activity of the intellect, but also, and primarily, in the loving relationship (a connaturality) with God:

Wisdom denotes a certain rectitude of judgment according to the Eternal Law. Now rectitude of judgment is twofold: first, on account of perfect use of reason, secondly, on account of a certain connaturality with the matter about which one has to judge. Thus, about matters of chastity, a man after inquiring with his reason forms a right judgment, if he has learned the science of morals, while he who has the habit of chastity judges of such matters by a kind of connaturality (II-II, 45.2).

Returning to the quote from Denys, Aquinas would agree that the unschooled St. Francis was wise, not as a result of rigorous philosophical and theological study, but rather, because of the indwelling of grace that had brought him into union with God who is Wisdom himself. For Francis and others who possess such wisdom, their theological writings may lack the intellectual character of a figure like Aquinas, but are nevertheless still works of genuine wisdom. Francis did not need to study to be wise; the source of his wisdom was not learning but love.

What is the lesson here? As a theologian and an academic (like Thomas in kind but not in degree) I am firmly convicted that the study of theology is important for the development of wisdom. It is important to engage in disputation, to explore in depths the principles of the faith, and to deduce conclusions (especially ethical conclusions) from those principles. But it is also important, perhaps even more important, to “taste and see that the Lord is good.” The liturgy is a powerful source of this sapor, where the music and the psalms and the incense and the light infiltrating in through the stained glass all culminate in the reception of the Eucharist as the senses, intellect, and will are all brought into union with Christ who presents himself bodily at the altar. From this sapor, a different sapientia flows forth in poetry and song: “Sing, my tongue, the Savior’s glory, of His flesh the mystery sing,” as we sing with Thomas in the Pange Lingua.

The taste of this wisdom depends also on our ability to let ourselves be passive recipients of the God who offers himself to us. For Aquinas, wisdom is a gift of the Holy Spirit, a free gift of grace. Our inability to taste is often, I think, rooted in our desire to feed ourselves, rather than to let ourselves be fed. In the Anima Christi, we pray, “Blood of Christ, inebriate me,” indicating, I think, that we need to let our guard down, lose a little of our self control, and be rendered vulnerable to the working of the Spirit who offers us a foretaste of that Divine Banquet where “ we shall be drowned, lost in that ocean of divine love, annihilated in that immense love of the Heart of Jesus!”

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