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.