Point of View: The death of Osama bin Laden and the limits of human justice

Article Date: May 2, 2011

Osama bin Laden is dead.  President Obama spoke with clarity and resolution when he addressed the American people last night:  “Tonight, I can report to the American people and to the world that the United States has conducted an operation that killed Osama bin Laden, the leader of al Qaeda, and a terrorist who’s responsible for the murder of thousands of innocent men, women, and children.”

That single sentence, delivered in a nearly unprecedented late-night Sunday address by an American president, encapsulates the moral context of the action. First, the President took responsibility for the act that ended bin Laden’s life. Osama bin Laden did not die an accidental death, nor a death by natural causes. The United States “conducted an operation” that resulted in his death. Second, the operation ended the life of one who was “a terrorist who’s responsible for the murder of thousands of innocent men, women, and children.”

In his short and historic address, the President justified the military action in terms of an act of war. In reality, the operation was a stunning affirmation of the effectiveness of American military expertise, combined with a remarkable intelligence achievement. Bin Laden was killed even as he was within a highly-guarded, encircled compound with walls and defenders. The act was fully justified by the demands of just war theory, the historic Christian means of moral reasoning that measures the justification for acts of lethal force.

Osama bin Laden was the one human being most responsible for a series of terrorist attacks, including the September 11, 2001 attacks on the United States—attacks that left more than 3,000 civilians dead. He claimed such responsibility, and pledged future attacks. The death of Osama bin Laden means that all people of the world should sleep more soundly in their beds, even as those who plot their own acts of terror should sleep less soundly in their own.

The death of bin Laden was fully justified as an act of war, but not as an act of justice. The removal of a credible threat to human life—a clear and present danger to human safety—is fully justified, especially after such an individual has demonstrated not only the will but the means to effect murder on a massive scale.

One interesting dimension of this moral context is the fact that American military and intelligence forces had identified bin Laden as such a threat long before the September 11, 2001 attacks. Furthermore, our forces had ample intelligence that would have allowed a lethal strike against him prior to the September 11 attacks. However justified such an action against bin Laden might have been then, this action after his massive attacks was more than justified.

And yet, there are two troubling aspects that linger. The first is the open celebration in the streets. While we should all be glad that this significant threat is now removed, death in itself is never to be celebrated. Such celebration points to the danger of revenge as a powerful human emotion. Revenge has no place among those who honor justice. Retributive justice is sober justice. The reason for this is simple—God is capable of vengeance, which is perfectly true to his own righteousness and perfection — but human beings are not. We tend toward the mismeasure of justice when it comes to settling our own claims. All people of good will should be pleased that bin Laden is no longer a personal threat, and that his death may further weaken terrorist plans and aspirations. But revenge is not a worthy motivation for justice, and celebration in the streets is not a worthy response.

Should we be glad that forces of the United States military have the means, the will, and the opportunity to remove this threat? Of course we should. Should we be hopeful that such an action will serve as a warning to others who might plan similar actions? Of course. Should we find some degree of moral satisfaction in the fact that bin Laden did not die a natural death outside the reach of human justice? Yes, of course.

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