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.