Death of a Despised Individual

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.

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6 Comments

Filed under Death, Ethics, Politics, Religion

6 responses to “Death of a Despised Individual

  1. 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?

    Yes. No punishment can possibly be justified when a person can be kept safely in custody and there’s a chance the person is innocent. We can’t assume a person is guilty before being proven innocent. Capital punishment is one form of punishment and there’s one more reason to oppose it when there’s been no trail or guilty verdict.

    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.

    No, we can’t just think we know someone is guilty and send them to prison. Innocent people are already going to prison because we aren’t careful enough. We also need to treat people equally before the law. I don’t know if I would call it an “absolute moral principle.” Equality before the law is needed for any decent social contract.

    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.

    I disagree.

    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.

    I disagree. I think atheists can think human life has value based on their experiences of human life, and I don’t know why you declare that no one has a right to that belief (without theism). There are also intuitive arguments in the favor of this idea. I discuss the issue more here: http://ethicalrealism.wordpress.com/2010/10/14/does-human-life-have-value/

    • James, had a skim through your article, and I have to say that, on a superficial consideration level, you don’t change my mind on the things we disagree about. What I don’t want is to accidentally talk past each other on these matters.

      There was a film in which Buddy Hackett played the part of a university cab driver, and at the climax he gave his synopsis of all of the philosophy reading he’d done in the university library between shifts over the years. The sum wisdom of humanity: “Life’s a crock of shit, but it’s all we’ve got.”

      Unless I’ve missed something important there, the fact that it’s all we’ve got pretty much explains all of the subjective evidence you give in your piece for its intrinsic value. That doesn’t come across as a very strong proof of anything. I have a problem with moral absolutes being established on the basis of such highly subjective postulates. If you want to condemn all forms of intentional killing as immoral, you need stronger evidence for the sacred character of human life. Short of that we’re left with aesthetic appreciation, reciprocity and religious sentiments; all of which have their own value, but none of which makes for a valid source of condemnations for (e.g.) the Bin Laden killing.

      Beyond that, the issue that I didn’t really explore properly in my blog this time is the inevitable messy element of triage in the process of protecting human life in general. I don’t believe that it is justifiable to torture someone because it provides satisfaction and direction for society as a whole when you do so, so in that sense I don’t believe that individual rights can be legitimately subjugated to collective advantage, but in terms of setting general rules of morality, it is the collective effects that we’re really looking at. How can we establish rules so that, on average, people have as great a possibility to live long, stimulating, productive and relatively pain-free lives? Setting absolute rules that serve those purposes would seem to require that on occasion it can be necessary to put particular individuals to death.

      One exercise I’ve done repeatedly with teenagers is to write four different forms of legally ending the life of another human being: Abortion, Capital punishment, Euthanasia and Warfare. I point out that such a list is ordered alphabetically, and I want them to order it from least morally acceptable to most morally acceptable. Part of the point is to get them to realize how messy such moral reasoning processes can be.

      One means of taking this discussion further in a fruitful manner might be to consider the points Nick Bostrom makes here: http://www.ted.com/talks/lang/eng/nick_bostrom_on_our_biggest_problems.html. How can we best preserve the value that each individual life contributes to our collective human experience? How can we avoid the accidental extinction of our species through loss of harmony with our environment? How can we make life much closer to its best much more of the time?

      I would not be inclined to postulate an absolute prohibition on all forms of ending human life as a valid means towards these ends. I would not even postulate “due process” as an *absolute* moral requirement for insuring the best possible epistemology as a basis for justice, towards the realization of these goals. Nor do I see either as being a valid end unto itself. Please feel free to continue trying to convince me otherwise.

  2. Right, and I have no reason to want to live because it’s just subjective, right? If people have a reason to live other than irrational biological forces, then it seems reasonable to recognize that other people’s lives have value in addition to our own.

    This is all just subjective? I know that I expect from subjective experience. I know that you exist because I assume that you also have subjective experience. If you are going to dismiss all “subjective” forms of evidence, nothing will be left.

    I take your argument as a form of the argument from queerness. The evidence for intrinsic value is “queer” and has no major implications to our other beliefs. However, I think that’s false. I explain why here: http://ethicalrealism.wordpress.com/2009/11/06/objections-to-moral-realism-part-3-argument-from-queerness/

    Subjective experience and intuition are very important elements of philosophical evidence. I never said that I know that human life has value for certain, but I don’t think the evidence should be dismissed out of hand.

    If intuition and subjective experience mean nothing, you might as well dismiss the idea that there’s an external world — we just assume that’s how it is. Yes, philosophy is based on assumptions. That doesn’t mean the assumptions are a free-for-all and there’s no reason to believe anything.

    Arguments for intuition – http://ethicalrealism.wordpress.com/2011/03/31/an-argument-for-intuition-in-philosophy/

  3. When I said “I know that I expect from subjective experience” I meant to say “I know I expect from it” although I know my expectations that way as well.

  4. Mike

    David – I think you may have missed what I see as a reason to be upset with how it went down.

    I think if he was assassinated by cruise missile, grenade into a room, long range sniper fire or related to an actual gun battle it would have been ok. Well ok in the sense he was a bad guy and he said he was etc. Yes I think he was.

    The problem I have is he was probably securely in custody when he was shot. They either had him in control or could have easily taken him. The two kill shots dispute any resistance.

    So for me it is not ethical or moral to shoot an unarmed person in our custody. I don’t care if it started out as an assassination…once you have him unarmed….It changes the situation. He should have been zip tied(like all the rest they took time to do) and had a short chopper flight to a carrier. Then off to the Hague to be tried.

    After collecting evidence for ten years I would hope we would have an open and shut case…

    I see it as part of our Justice system. Is this how we treat people convicted in the media? If I am labelled a bad person. Can I expect a fair trial or two bullets? If it is fair to execute a person in your control/custody. Should we just give the police the right to be judge jury and executioner? Think of Judge Dread or the vigilantes in Magnum Force.

    No I do not want to give some idiot with a badge the right to kill me. I want the trial.

    It is not just me but also Noam Chomski
    http://www.guernicamag.com/blog/2652/noam_chomsky_my_reaction_to_os/

    and Michael had similar thoughts.
    http://www.michaelmoore.com/words/mike-friends-blog/some-final-thoughts-on-death-of-osama-bin-laden

    When the FBI makes an arrest of drug dealers that are known to deal drugs, kill people and have weapons.

    They don’t just catch them in a situation in which they are unarmed and defenseless and say your guilty. Then shoot them dead. It would make things easier. No trial, no slippery defense lawyers. No retaliation from the gangs etc.

    We just cuff them or zip tie them and haul their ass to be interrogated.

    It doesn’t matter if it is a low level drug dealer or a Columbian drug lord. If they can easily take them alive, we do. That is how we usually do justice.

    That is our justice system. Everyone has a day in court.

    Are we a nation with laws/justice or a nation with laws of convenience?

    We broke international laws to do this. If he is an enemy combatant…we broke laws. If he was a civilian. We broke laws. We broke our own laws for a soldiers conduct. What is the point of us having laws if we don’t have to follow them?

    Well. I think he should have been tried.

  5. Thanks Mike. I hadn’t followed those details of the coverage. I’m not prone to support Dirty Harry techniques in general, but I’m not convinced still that I want to condemn the methods on this one entirely. I’d still say that the trial is a very valuable means to an end, but not an end unto itself. I’d still hesitate on accepting the slippery slope argument you have. Osama defenseless also seems like a bit of an oxymoron. I will look into the historical points you raise though.

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