The big question lately in some circles has been: Was the death of Osama bin Laden — in the way that it happened — justified?
I think it was. And I think this answer is pretty clear, if we employ some basic principles of justice in times of war.
To be sure, we’ll probably never quite know the details of what happened in the Pakistan compound where Bin Laden was shot. But if we rely on our reason, a well-formed stance on the Church’s teaching, and facts that seem pretty obvious, we can make a judgment that holds real water, and which permits us to say confidently one thing rather than another.
First the facts: Bin Laden was the leader of a terrorist organization called al-Qaeda, which targeted American citizens on September 11, 2001. Bin Laden and his group made, implicitly, an act of war against the United States; and for this, the U.S. government considered him an enemy. A war ensued between the U.S. and al-Qaida.
Another fact is that the duel between Bin Laden and Washington was connected not only to his person as Osama bin Laden, but also to his office as the continued leader of the terror cell behind 9/11. If Bin Laden would have stepped down, for instance, over the last years, then the United States military would (and should) have focused on his capture, while at the same time hunting for the new leader of al-Qaida. After all, Bin Laden didn’t kill American citizens, al-Qaida did. They’re the real enemy.
The final fact is this: Osama bin Laden didn’t step down. He persisted in his leadership of al-Qaida until just last week. He remained not only the man behind 9/11, but the man behind the organization behind 9/11. He did not surrender. And he remained with his trigger-finger on the loaded gun of terrorism.
Now for the murky details. Was Bin Laden killed as an unarmed man? Was there really a “firefight” that produced a “fog of war”? Or is this fog purely rhetorical? Fortunately, we don’t have to deal with these tricky (and probably unanswerable) questions to reach the conclusion about his death being justified. They’re not essential; and here’s why.
Given the facts mentioned above, we can say this: if Bin Laden was shot without a weapon, he was killed not merely as an unarmed man, but as an unarmed man behind al-Qaida (and behind 9/11). In other words, since he persisted in his leadership of al-Qaida — and since he routinely exercised the power of terror to kill thousands of Middle Easterners and Americans, alike — simply calling him “unarmed” doesn’t suffice. In the world of extremism, a domineering mentality is as powerful as a rifle or an IED. If Bin Laden didn’t have a gun, he certainly maintained his deadly powers of persuasion.
For the SEALs to kill Osama bin Laden, then — whether or not he posed an immediate threat to their safety — seems much like an act of self-defense. They defused once and for all a powerful al-Qaida weapon that had brought death to thousands, and would do so again if left unchecked. They shot and killed a man who, although perhaps unarmed in the strict sense, was erratically lethal. And this constitutes not an act of murder, but an act of justice.