Thursday, May 05, 2011

Thoughts on the killing of Osama bin Laden


I am sitting here at my computer this morning trying to think myself through the moral issues associated with the assassination of Osama bin Laden. More to the point, am I concerned that American military personnel likely had an order to kill bin Laden and carried out that order, whether or not he would have surrendered given the opportunity?

The perhaps not-so-simple answer for me is that it is important that we think of this as a moral question, and that we weigh all factors involved and come to a considered decision. In deciding not to release the pictures of bin Laden's body to prove his death, President Obama made a statement to the effect that his body and the pictures should not be seen as a trophy and that doing things in this way is "not who we are." This then begs the question, who are we? And what criteria do we use to answer this question?

So let me get something out of the way: I think the greater good demanded that bin Laden be hunted down and summarily executed, which is probably what happened. To have taken him alive would have provided too many potential focal points for violence by extremists in the drawn out legal process associated with trying him, then likely executing him when it was over. I think it is very likely that more innocent people would have died if we had tried to do things in a more procedurally acceptable way.

To return to that question of who we are as a nation, I would like to think we are the kind of people, with the kind of leadership, able to make hard choices, perhaps sometimes ugly choices, because it will lead to a better moral outcome. I know what kind of slippery slope that is. I've spent enough time with my nose in "those books" to understand the nuances of ethical theory -- I know that the relationship between ends and means can be very thorny. Nothing brilliant here, but sometimes you make your choices, you give your reasons and you live with the results, hoping, really hoping, that you've made a better world by doing what you think had to be done.

I was among those uncomfortable with the celebratory nature of some of the reactions to bin Laden's death. I don't want to celebrate anyone's death - not even the demise of this monster. That's not who I want to be. But I do appear to be the kind of person who can justify killing, even in the absence of due process, if it means that more innocent people won't have to die.

Michael Moore has weighed in to say that, after World War II, the Allied powers captured and tried Nazis before putting them to death and that this is perhaps what we should have done here. But that was a different set of circumstances. No one else would have died as a result of the actions of radical supporters of the Nazis on trial. They were defeated. They no longer existed. These are, to my mind, differences that matter.

Anyway, that's kind of where I come down. Likely on the orders of the President of the United States, Osama bin Laden was not going to be alive at the end of this particular military operation. I hope we can all live with that.

(Cross-posted to Lippmann's Ghost.)

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