More on the Ethics of bin Laden’s Death

Yesterday I quickly wrote up my thoughts on bin Laden’s death.  Matt then offered both a comment on my post and a post of his own on the subject, and Matt’s comment deserves more thought.  How can this be a good thing but not be worthy of happiness?

This is my quick reply.  There were many possibilities for how everything surrounding bin Laden could have turned out.  This is my scale from best to worst.

1. He could have publicly repented, turned himself in, and said that Al Qaeda should just call this whole terrorism thing off.  Highly unlikely, but a better alternative than his death and a continuing war.

2. He could have been captured… but intentionally was not, apparently.  The mission was to kill not capture, and I think that was choosing a lesser good, and lesser goods are also known as relative evils.  Choosing a lesser good is wrong, in fact it is a sin in the form of “missing the mark.”  We got close, but not right on target.

3. He could have been killed, which is what happened.  No more bad guy, but a loss of a gold mine of intelligence information, not to mention an even bigger propaganda victory.  And from a Christian perspective, keeping him alive would have offered him the ability to later repent (also a victory for the US), not to mention perhaps saving a hell-bound man’s soul.

4. He could have escaped, thus continuing the status quo for the past more-than-ten years.  Thus would have been a worse alternative than his death, obviously, because it would have allowed him to continue in his defiant activities, provide aid to the enemy, and continue to look like he was perhaps being protected by God (which is not insignificant when you say God is on your side – if you end up dead, you look bad).

5. Even worse, he could have had the Taliban re-establish itself, or some other nation or group manage to elevate him to an even higher and worse level of influence.

So, given the descending options above, we hit the middle ground.  Not the best, but neither the worst.  But we appear to have willfully chosen a lesser good, which bothers me a lot.  It makes us cede some of the moral high ground, and that does not help us with public relations in that part of the world.

How is this good but not worthy of happiness?  Because in evil situations sometimes even the “best” likely outcome is still not that great.  The likelihood of bin Laden’s public apology was about zero – this is prideful evil we were dealing with here, and that kind of evil does not just turn around and admit its wrongness.  But if it had happened it would have been truly worthy of joy, an enemy reconciled, and evil organization shattered by its leader’s change of heart (think Yasser Arafat, not that that has exactly turned out well either).

Bin Laden’s capture would also definitely have been worthy of joy.  I would have liked to see him in chains, walking up to the federal courthouse in New York City or Washington DC to meet his judgment.  Think of the psychological power of an evil man humbled.  But we never shall see that now.

So we got a lesser good, bin Laden’s death.  Still good, still better than the worse alternatives, but hardly something to be happy about.

UPDATE: There seems to be some controversy on whether the mission was kill-only.  The Whitehouse claims it was not kill-only.  More later.

UPDATE 2: According to CIA chief Leon Panetta (on various media sources), OBL was killed unarmed.  The mission was only to take him alive if he surrendered, other than that just to kill him. He did not actively surrender, so he was killed.  That is a mistake, I think.  We should have tried to take him alive.

Our quickness to kill reflects badly on us. While we succeeded, we did so in a non-heroic way.  Mercy is more heroic because it is harder, and certainly not what OBL would have done, and it was therefore more than he deserved.

Which is exactly why we should have been more merciful – because it would have proven we were morally better human beings representing a better way of life than the one he was trying to impose by his evil actions.

That would have given us a lot of credit as a benevolent nation worthy of being respected, not just a powerful nation worthy of being feared.  In our haste to kill we lost a big opportunity to show we were the better people in this fight.  Of course, this has been standard operating procedure for the entire war on terror from the start.  We sacrifice respect for the sake of fear.  And fear only perpetuates anger and hatred, it does not end it.

While I still agree that OBL’s death is a good outcome, it is a lesser of good outcomes, and that is unfortunate.


9 responses to “More on the Ethics of bin Laden’s Death

  • Vik

    I guess my main response, Brian, is — According the New York Times, the mission was kill or capture, and “Bin Laden was shot in the head after he tried to resist the assault force.” I believe we can conclude that he would have been captured if he had not resisted. You may not agree. But if so, how much risk to the lives of U.S. armed forces were we required to accept in order to capture Osama alive?

  • Vik

    Presumably my earlier comment will be posted before this one… So, “by the way,” (in relation that comment) my first reaction to the President’s announcement was to seize on his apparently poor choice of words, saying that Osama was killed “after” a firefight. That gave me the rather blood-curdling idea that he had been executed. I now believe that that was not the case. I certainly hope not.

  • Matt

    Once again, I must disagree with you, Brian (in a spirit of collegiality of course!!) on a few points:

    1. I just cannot see OBL being a “gold mine of intelligence info” unless he was tortured and even then, the info would be suspect at best, since most torture induced intelligence is. And if we can see his death as “good” on your terms (the removal of an evil man is a regrettable good), surely you would not condone torture. Those that see his death as an absolute good might even want to see OBL tortured, but neither you nor I can justify that under our Christian ethics.

    2. I agree that his capture would have been the best scenario, all else being equal. But given the mess we have created with Gitmo, I just cannot see any way a fair trial could be held in the United States – nor could I see a trial concluding in anything short of capital punishment. So, if the trial is not fair, and he would die anyway, I’m not sure anything is gained that is worthy of this solution being “better” than the current one. The best solution clearly would have been if we captured him and then turned him over to the Int’l Criminal Court, but that simply was not going to happen.

    3. Finally, I still disagree with your theory of “lesser” and “greater” goods. Certainly some goods are better than others, but the death of a human being cannot be counted as a good. The destruction of a terrorist organization: good. The safety and peace this will hopefully bring to the world: good. The potential (finally) for the end of the war in Afghanistan: good. But the death of a human being cannot ever be considered “good.” Perhaps our argument is just one of semantics, but if we believe in ethical principles like double effect, then we have to be able to distinguish the death of the man from the other “effects” of that death, and the death of the man cannot be “good.”

  • Matt

    The President said last night that the mission was to “kill or capture” which turned me cold when I heard those words. That is the wrong lexical priority – if our first option is to kill, we will never get to option 2.

  • Vik

    As a number of people have said, it was considered unlikely that Osama could have been captured alive, or without resisting. I think that’s the best explanation for listing “kill” before “capture.”

    Remember, this was not our country and we did not have the active cooperation of Pakistan. I believe the risks to our people were great, and would have been much greater if “capture alive” had been a high priority..

  • Matt

    I do not always like the wording chosen by the Vatican but here I think they got it right. From the GTU Facebook page:

    A Vatican spokesman said: “Faced with the death of a man, a Christian never rejoices, but reflects on the serious responsibility of each and every one of us before God and before man, and hopes and commits himself so that no event be an opportunity for further growth of hatred, but for peace.”

  • Brian Green

    Vik, I have seen conflicting news accounts of whether the mission was “capture or kill,” or just “kill.” So, for now I’m going to take the middle ground and just assume that capturing him was an option that was pursued halfheartedly. I am sure the priority was minimization of US casualties and the team did a good job of that. I still wish bin Laden had been dragged out alive rather than dead, though.

    Matt, okay more responding to you! (Collegially, of course!) 1. you are right, I should have said “potential gold mine” rather than implying him to be an actual gold mine. He would have a lot in his head that would have been hard to get out, and I do not support torture at all. So I spoke too emphatically.

    2. You are right that his trial would have been “unfair” (though when you gloat about your crime is there much doubt?) and perhaps ended in execution anyway… except… we haven’t executed any terrorists after trials yet, have we? Maybe we have and I’ve missed it. But bin Laden probably would have just languished in Gitmo. I still have fantasies of our country bringing evil to trial and then imprisoning them in Alcatraz, I guess. It seems like we are not executing these guys after capture, just on the battlefield, so it kinda surprises me OBL was killed. Yes it was a battle, but SEALs are rather skilled at what they do, I bet they could have kept him alive if they had wanted to (I’m thinking of the four pirates killed on a bouncing boat from another boat a while back by snipers – they’re some good shots).

    3. Lastly, the can-death-be-good question and surrounding issues. For this we need the right tool of ethical analysis, and rather than just war, as you wrote about before, I think double-effect gets closer.

    So: 1) the object of the act must be good or neutral; 2) the intention must be good; 3) the effects proportional; and 4) the effects inextricable, not an end-justifying-the-means. 1) I’ll venture that killing is not an intrinsic evil, which I think you’ll agree to as well, though perhaps you do not. What do you think? 2) The intent is questionable (revenge? justice?) because we do not know them, but let’s just say they were good. 3) the effects must weigh towards the good. OBL’s death = bad, protecting everyone else (even his own family, he tried to convince his kids to become suicide bombers, after all) = good. Psychological blow to Al Qaeda = good. Meddling in Pakistan, a sovereign nation = bad. Bypassing the rule of law = bad. Potentially lessening world instability – good. Shortening the war = good. 4) Are the ends justifying the means? For some of the above effects yes – not all the effects are direct causes of the one act of killing OBL. The only inseparable effects are the bad of killing him and the good of removing his dangerous presence from the world… but even that could have been accomplished by capture instead, more proportionate means. Well, maybe that still just leaves us in a muddle – there are multiple actions going on each with multiple effects ad extricating them all exceeds my spare brain power at this time. But it could be interesting, if we wanted to get into it.

    The other approach that comes to mind is virtue ethics, and I have to say it can offer some immediate directives. Gloating over the death of your enemy? Bad. Feeling relief that your enemy can no longer hurt you? Good. But all we did was kill one guy. This victory is extremely symbolic and not much of a practical one. We’ve not seen the last of these guys. Hydras sprout new heads, and Al Qaeda has certainly proven to be a hydra. Of course, the solution to hydra problemss is to prevent the exercise of their regenerative capacity. And that, in this case, requires that we change the environment and starve the hydra, not just kill kill kill its heads, ad infinitum. Our courage has gotten us this far, but only wisdom will end this war.

    • Matt

      “we haven’t executed any terrorists after trials yet, have we?” I was thinking more along the lines of what happened to Saddam. I’m not sure how it would have gone down, but I sincerely doubt that OBL would ever have been brought to the Western Hemisphere. I still maintain that the ICC would have been the appropriate venue, and perhaps President Obama would have had the guts to make such a move, but we’ll never know.

      “I’ll venture that killing is not an intrinsic evil …What do you think?”: I agree – killing is an ontic evil, not an intrinsic evil. But it ought never be seen as a ‘good.’

      “OBL’s death = bad”: This is what I have been saying all along.

      “The other approach that comes to mind is virtue ethics, and I have to say it can offer some immediate directives.”: I had this very discussion with my class tonight – What ‘sort of country’ do we want to be? Do we want our identity as a country to be reduced to warring terrorist hunters, or does/should America stand for something more morally upstanding?

  • Boston Bomber Dzhokhar Tsarnaev Taken Alive: A Moral Victory | TheMoralMindfield

    […] Osama bin Laden was killed in Pakistan it was only a half-victory for the USA, as I noted at the time. We not only acted outside the law, but we denied him the ability to apologize. That would have […]

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