The Ethics of Killing Osama bin Laden

The world is abuzz: Osama bin Laden is dead.  This is a historic day.  But are we right to feel good?  Is this justice or revenge?

I think it’s both.  “We got the guy that got us,” is one response I’ve already heard, and I agree, we did.  This guy hated the United States, hated the West, and hated us more than he loved his own family, according to his own son.  He was an evil human being, one who corrupted himself.  And now he is dead. He is to blame for this outcome.  Justice served on a killer, a vicious man removed from the face of the earth.

But this is also not perfect justice.  Perhaps he could have been captured.  He certainly would have been a valuable prisoner, and his imprisonment would have denied Al Qaeda a martyr.  It’s too bad we didn’t get him alive, not to mention one more thing…

This was a human being, in his core, like you and me.  From the Judeo-Christian tradition, made in the image of God, like you and me.  Reveling in his death is not good – that instinctive reaction harms us, it does not make us better people.  Bin Laden was a bad human being, but he was still a human being.  Deeply corrupted, but still human.  We should not enjoy this moment.

It is a sad end to a bad life.  Bin Laden brought this upon himself, but I think we can still feel sorry for him, sorry for his choosing to live such a hate-filled life and for dying such a pathetic death.  This is what evil looks like: death.  If only he had not chosen so wrongly, if only he had not taken the wrong path, if only.  But history did not conspire that way.

Make no mistake: it is good bin Laden is dead, and he deserved it.  But we should not be happy about it.  Instead we should learn from it and see if we can figure out how to make this final step – killing a deeply corrupted man – not have to happen any more.  I know that’s impossible, humans will always choose the wrong path, but we can try harder to stop things earlier on, before necessitating these extreme measures.

I don’t really know how, other than to try to extend the rule of justice and universal goodwill to all people (and many people do not want that).  That is what the US government says we are trying to do with our wars.  Maybe it will even work… maybe.  I have serious doubts.  One does not establish goodwill through violence.  And the problems involved here are cultural and deeply embedded into people’s psyches.  Hate runs deep.

But the only way to kill hate is with love.  Returning hate with hate just leads to death.  To turn one’s enemy into one’s friend must be the ultimate goal for creating a peaceful world: a peace of love, not a peace of the last man standing.  And we know in our core that we Americans and Westerners are not a people who want to win by being the last humans standing.  We would rather be friends than killers.  But we don’t always have a choice.

I hope that we can somehow find a way to end this terrorist war not by killing, but by reconciliation.  That may be impossible.  Our enemies are truly vicious, and we Americans have a long memory for returning wrongs (think of Cuba and Iran).  But it must be considered a possibility if it is to ever occur.  We are not prepared to kill so many as to be the last ones standing.  And if we are not prepared to do that then we must be prepared to reconcile.  May we have the strength and wisdom to someday figure out how.

UPDATE: More thoughts here, especially on how this can be a good outcome but not worthy of being happy about.

9 responses to “The Ethics of Killing Osama bin Laden

  • Matthew Gaudet

    “Make no mistake: it is good bin Laden is dead, and he deserved it. But we should not be happy about it.”

    Hmmm – not sure I see the distinction between OBL’s death as a “good” thing but not one to be “happy” about. I too regret that he was killed instead of captured, but I never held out much hope that it could end any other way, and while a trial would have been a good show of the rule of law, the only way to do that, especially in light of the Gitmo clusterfunk, would have been to turn him over to the International Criminal Court, and that is something I held out even less hope that him being captured alive. So perhaps it is the “best” outcome, but that best comes well short of “good.”

    But as for the difference between something “good” and something that makes us “happy,” I would acknowledge that all things that make us happy are not necessarily good, but all things that are good should make us happy, I would think? I would suggest that the distinction I would make in this case is that OBLs death, like all casualties of just warfighting, is an ontic or premoral evil – something regrettable, because death should always be regrettable – but that it does not rise to the level of an immoral action. However, ontic evil, while not immoral, is not something we should be happy about or consider good. It is what some (at the moment I forget who) have called the “moral traces” of an imperfect “best” action in an imperfect world.

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  • Rosanna Pittella

    So, the message to our children is that although in the past when people have committed crimes against humanity the United States sought to capture and conduct or participate in international trials for them, to ensure that rule of international was applied, and that accusers could face culprits, but now the world is changed. Suddam Hussein was tried and hung in this way. Now,however, no rule of law is in place in this case. We would call foreign helicopters hovering over and bombing a compound here in the USA, instruments of terrorism, and the act itself an act of war, or terrorism. Yet, when the USA did just that, we call it justice. An eye for an eye, it would appear has become our motto, and we all must feel comfortable that if other countries feel that way too, that we must accept that they will exact their revenge again in the future. Is this the message we want to leave for our children?

  • Alicia

    Thank you for having the courage to post this. Regardless of your beliefs, death should never be a reason to rejoice. By killing Osama, innocent lives will have been saved, and THAT is the true reason to rejoice. But to proclaim happiness over the loss of another HUMAN is sad no matter how horrible a man he may have been. He was still a man. We are separated by him only in the fact that we have morals, ethics, we know it is wrong to kill others, and that is why we deemed him a “bad man”. If we forget that, we become what we hunt.

  • Brian Green

    Matt, I’ll respond to you on my other post. I think that tackling this problem has something to do with knowing how to choose the right ethical too, but none of the ones I can think of apply just right. More on the other post.

    Rosanna, you are right that we definitely do not want to teach our children those bad things. Bin Laden’s death is morally ambiguous in many ways, especially the one’s that you mention: the extra-judicial aspects and direct interference in the affairs of a sovereign country.

    Alicia, I agree with you – a killing is no reason to rejoice, it is a failure. And one of the greatest dangers here is exactly what you mention: lowering ourselves to the moral level of our enemies. I think we still have the high ground, but the reveling in the streets was disturbing. We must not become the monsters we oppose.

    • Matt

      Re: Alicia’s comment…

      I think Brian and my discussion of the value of virtue ethics on his other post makes for a valuable way to think about this issue. What we as a country say and do is a reflection of who we are. What sort of country do we want to be?

  • James Dempsey

    Interesting thoughts in the post, and interesting comments. It is hard to know which way to turn, ethically, when such strong considerations seem to weigh against each other. I’ve had a go at thinking through some of these issues myself here:

    Any comments welcome.

  • Bala Varadarajan

    It seems to be forgotten that the US who assassinated OBL was responsible in the first place for creating this monster to get rid of Soviet Union from Afghanistan. When will the US be made to account for their actions

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