While I was traveling last week an important piece of history took place: the US military finally hunted down and killed Osama Bin Laden. Many people have been asking what I think about the subject, so after some delays here, I’ve taken the time to explore my thoughts with and for your all.
To start with there’s the whole timing conspiracy question. Was there a reason why he was killed now rather than sooner or later? Is his death a means of promoting certain political or business careers? Why wait until now? Or why not take him prisoner and kill him later if necessary? In my opinion such questions don’t merit particularly extensive investigation. Not quite 10 years after his most infamous act was not a particularly auspicious time for Bin Laden to be gunned down. Both Bush II and Obama could have used the political boost of the death of this infamous enemy to much better advantage if it had happened earlier. While this can’t hurt the US Democrats’ standing with the wavering, moderate voters, with whom Obama spent all of his political capital in trying to make health care a basic human right in the US (as it has been for decades in every other “developed” country), it by no means guarantees their success in the next election cycle. So as far as American political interests are concerned it is unrealistic to assume that there is more to this than what can be seen on the surface: Bin Laden was wanted dead or alive, preferably dead, due to the fact that he very publicly worked to bring about the deaths of thousands of otherwise innocent Americans; and the American military took care of that as soon as they could.
It could be said that the biggest delay in carrying out this assassination stemmed from variable levels of cooperation with the Pakistanis. Here I am not an expert, but I can point to a few of the well known dots that might be worth connecting. The extremely medieval form of Islam practiced in Bin Laden’s native Saudi Arabia can obviously still work in such an oil rich country, where reform and progress towards social justice can be stifled by a strong-armed and well resourced military machine, together with some strategic distribution of the oil wealth among those who are friends of the status quo. If a country doesn’t have that kind of money, an alternative way of holding the ancient status quo together is by using it as a defense against some particularly horrible “other”. Pakistan has tried both approaches, and neither is looking particularly sustainable at this point. Given Pakistan’s problems with internal political strife, flood damage that may never be repaired, growing resistance to traditions of brutally oppressing women, and cultural optimism following an international cricket championship final against India (which remained extremely friendly even though they lost), maybe––just maybe––the Pakistani military bosses finally decided that siding with this rabble rouser who specialized in inciting hatred based on medieval thinking was no longer in their best interest. That in turn allowed for significant wheels of military intelligence finally being set into motion.
But political causes and effects aside, one of the big questions remains: was it right to kill this fellow? How freely can we justify the taking of a human life –– any human life, regardless of how despicable we find the person? In Star Wars’ terminology, when we act to take a life, or lives, out of hatred and disgust at what a person symbolizes to us, do we effectively surrender ourselves to “the power of the dark side” in the process?
There are actually two relevant ethical issues involved in this matter: What makes a human life particularly valuable to begin with? And then, how dangerous are motivations of de-humanizing hatred and resentment?
Those few who genuinely deeply object to Bin Laden being assassinated do so on the basis of assassination always being wrong, as an absolute moral principle, with no exceptions. For these purposes let’s define assassination as the targeted killing of a particular individual because of the risks that person poses to a particular government or other organization. So some particularly well known assassinations of the modern era would include Abraham Lincoln, Duke Franz Ferdinand, Leon Trotsky, Mahatma Gandhi, Martin Luther King Jr., Stephen Biko, Anna Politkovskaya and Benazir Bhutto. In each of these cases, despite their personal detractors and posthumous opponents, they have achieved as certain martyr-like status, and those who caused their deaths have been roundly condemned. On the other hand though, we have cases like Ceauşescu in Romania, where assassinating the fallen dictator as they did could have easily been the best thing for the country in terms of saving other lives. Or in fiction we have the rather sympathetic scene in “The Godfather” where Michael assassinates the crooked cop and his handler in the diner… for the good of the family and community, as he saw it. In neither case could those assassinated be considered any sort of martyrs. Could those have been taken as morally justifiable assassinations? What if some intelligence service or military unit were to eliminate the Gaddafi element of the Libyan people’s suffering? What if thousands of Zimbabwean lives could be saved by ridding that country of Mugabe’s autocratic rule? Would saving thousands of lives, and the freeing of millions from lives of terror, justify the assassination of such self-important individuals?
To some there is a significant moral line between assassination and capital punishment following a fair and public trial. Does due process make governmentally sanctioned killing more moral? In some ways it’s hard to see how. Reducing the risk of killing someone who doesn’t deserve to be killed is a noble idea in one sense, but in cases such as Bin Laden’s there can hardly be any reasonable doubt regarding whether or not he committed the actions for which the US and Pakistan determined that he deserved to die. But those who are prone to believe in absolute moral principles might say that you still need a trial just as a matter of principle. They too are entitled to their view.
The more commonly held view, however, is that government sponsored killing is just as morally wrong as privately committed murder. This view holds that the problem is not, as Hobbes taught, just a matter of keeping violence under control by only allowing it to be exercised as a matter of public agreement. The heart of the matter is that there is something absolutely sacred about human life, which makes it something never to be taken by another human under any circumstances. That, however, is highly problematic in at least two senses: First of all it doesn’t really have any logical basis for being so; and secondly, it’s more or less impossible to consistently apply.
The closest thing we have to a basis for believing that human life must never be taken away is the religious tradition of which the 10 Commandments is an integral part: “Thou shalt not kill.” It almost goes without saying, however, that originally, in practice, this was only intended to prohibit private murder within one’s own society, and even there religious justifications provided plenty of exceptions. Religion itself has been a major excuse for killing over the years, and so taking religion as an absolute basis for not killing is hardly morally consistent.
Religion in general, and the Abrahamic tradition in particular, holds that life is a precious gift from God, but it is inherently temporary, and to realize its full value it has to be related to something beyond itself –– something more eternal. Respect for human life is vitally important in this tradition, but its protection and prolonging is far less an end unto itself than a means of realizing something more than long life for its own sake. Sometimes that value relates to particular lives necessarily coming to an end against our hopes and sooner than expected.
But more than killing, one factor which would seem to be an even bigger corruption of the human spirit, and our societies, is to base them on hatred of others. This has always been there, in spite of the best attempts of the best of religious leaders to help people overcome it. In the Sermon on the Mount Jesus is quoted as saying, “You have heard that it was said to the people long ago, ‘You shall not murder,[a] and anyone who murders will be subject to judgment.’ But I tell you that anyone who is angry with a brother or sister will be subject to judgment” (Matthew 5:21-22). In other words, in his teaching, hatred is just as serious a moral problem as murder itself. Of course enemies and detractors will always exist in our lives, but basing our lives on shared hatred of those we label as evil is a nasty way to live; basing our lives on cycles of revenge, so much the worse.
There’s a standard joke nowadays about using Hitler or the Nazis in an argument: it always constitutes one variation or another on “Godwin’s Law”. Nazis have become such a cliché, based on their use as a scare tactic against any form of “socialist” by such lesser minds as Glen Beck, that any moral lesson from recent history is in danger of being lost. In using the word “Nazi” as a hate-mongering tool, today’s rabid American radio personalities are, perhaps intentionally, losing track of the fact that the ultimate evil of the Third Reich was hate-mongering. We do not condemn Hitler for making the trains run on time or providing state sponsored health care. We condemn him for fueling that sort of efficiency with resentment towards “inferior tribes” that he convinced people needed to be exterminated. Why is that so hard to understand?
In our generation there are plenty of hate-mongers to go around still. There are ultra-nationalists versus anti-nationalists, and violent religious extremists against both their counterparts of other religious persuasions and violent anti-religious extremists. To one extent or another it will become inevitable to meet this violence with violence. The trick is to do so without making hatred the central factor of our existence.
Overall though, in the time delay since I started trying to formulate these thoughts, I can’t really complain about the way things have played out. In the week and a half since Bin Laden was killed, the world has not become a significantly more peaceful nor a more violent place. The US seems to be more worried this week about the question of whether or not rich people should pay taxes so that poor people don’t have to die for lack of medical care than about how to combat the next wave of Muslim extremists. And while that alternative problem as its own strange absurdity to it, it’s a far cry healthier for them to be debating about that than to be holding debates to snowball the hatemongering. Meanwhile, in the Middle East, autocrats are grasping at straws, saying that if they don’t stay in power some horrible extremists will take over their countries, but no one is buying it.
Struggles continue, but neither celebrations of nor mourning over the death of this high profile religious hate-monger has captured this last week’s headlines. And flying by way of Istanbul last week, sitting in the airport next to the door to the Muslim prayer room while waiting for a connecting flight, the biggest commotion was the yelling competition between the cashiers at Burger King and Popeye’s and the Turkish ice cream vendor to get potential customers’ attention. Wonderful how smoothly this little spike in hatred came and went!
So may peace and security be with each of you as well.