The Catholic University of America

May 30, 2011

Killing bin Laden

WASHINGTON (CNS) – On the night that we learned of Osama bin Laden’s death, I was tempted to rejoice. If I had been downtown, I might have at least considered joining the flash mob that showed up a few miles from our campus at the White House to celebrate the death of the world’s most famous and feared Islamic terrorist.

But as I watched this spontaneous pep rally on television – with its campaign signs and chants of “U.S.A.!” – I found my own emotional state a little more somber.

I can’t blame anyone for feeling good about the terrorist’s death. But the mob’s unbridled glee seemed better suited to a sporting event. Reflecting on the crowd’s youthful composition, I wondered if I was just getting old.

Bin Laden masterminded the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, which killed about 3,000 Americans. His action inspired two massive wars with even greater and ongoing loss of life. Bin Laden’s organization has since conducted further horrific massacres of civilians – for example, in Spain and Indonesia. So it is safe to say that we are all better off without him.

But should we really be so happy about his demise?

And can we, as Catholics, close this chapter in world history with a feeling that we have not participated in some kind of injustice?

A public statement by Jesuit Father Federico Lombardi, the Vatican spokesman, on bin Laden’s death offered a clear answer to the first question, but it failed to address the second:

“In the face of a man’s death, a Christian never rejoices, but reflects on the serious responsibilities of each person before God and before men, and hopes and works so that every event may be the occasion for the further growth of peace and not of hatred.”

So that much seems clear. But can bin Laden’s killing be justified by the same Catholic Church that denounces the culture of death and frowns upon capital punishment even for truly evil murderers?

Not all killing is equal in God’s eyes. The Catechism of the Catholic Church asserts a positive moral duty to kill an unjust aggressor, if (and only if) that’s what it takes to neutralize the immediate threat he poses to innocent life.

No less an authority than St. Thomas Aquinas argues further that the assassination of tyrants can be legitimate, albeit under extremely limited circumstances, where it genuinely serves the common good.

Our church condones the right to kill in self-defense, and defends the legitimacy of the death penalty where it is necessary to protect society even if such cases are increasingly rare. And, as in bin Laden’s case, we consider righteous the act of killing combatants in a just war, for it is a means of neutralizing military threats and ending war.

Does it matter that bin Laden was not holding a gun? As in all combat cases, the U.S. Navy SEAL teams were justified in presuming that he posed a grave immediate threat. They would have been obliged to accept his surrender, but they were not obliged to refrain from killing him simply because he was not firing back. There is nothing immoral about catching an enemy by surprise in war, when his weapons are not at the ready.

I suppose we might have tried to capture bin Laden even if he was unwilling to surrender, hogtied him and lugged him onto a helicopter. But such a heroic effort to preserve his life would have created greater risks to the mission, to say nothing of the bloodshed and hostage-taking that would likely have ensued if the United States held him in custody.

The central point is that our church does not condone killing as retribution or simple vengeance. I think it is off the mark to think of shooting bin Laden as score-settling, or even to say that he got his just deserts. Killing him was an act of prophylaxis; it neutralized a grave threat. On that ground it was justified, even if it is nothing to celebrate.