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Justice for bin Laden? (10548)

‘Justice has been done,’ states President Obama, and just-war scholars agree.

05/04/2011 Comments (28)
CNS photo/Stringer via Reuters

People burn a photograph of al-Qaida leader Osama bin Laden in the western Indian city of Ahmedabad May 2 as they celebrate his killing. Bin Laden's death during a May 1 U.S. military strike has stirred debate about the morality of such a killing.

– CNS photo/Stringer via Reuters

WASHINGTON — The term “just-war doctrine” never surfaced in President Obama’s announcement Sunday night that U.S. forces had killed Osama bin Laden.

But his precise remarks underscored the U.S. government’s awareness that the world would scrutinize the killing of the mastermind of the 9/11 attacks from many different vantage points, including the just-war doctrine.

Introduced by St. Augustine of Hippo, this doctrine has traditionally provided the moral framework for guiding and evaluating “the just defense of a nation against an aggressor.”

It does not directly address the issue of individual or collective guilt of the aggressor, or how a just punishment should be established. The teaching allows aggression to be stopped by proportionate means and nothing more; the president implicitly acknowledged this criterion when he noted that bin Laden was only killed after a 40-minute firefight in which he resisted capture.

“Justice has been done,” the president told the nation. He identified bin Laden as the leader of a global terrorist network “which had openly declared war on the United States and was committed to killing innocents in our country and around the globe. And so we went to war against al Qaeda to protect our citizens, our friends and our allies.”

The president reported that the team of Navy Seals and CIA operatives who conducted the raid on bin Laden’s compound “took care to avoid civilian casualties.”

Experts on just-war doctrine — also called just-war theory or tradition — have only begun to assess the full scope of the operation to kill or capture bin Laden. But several leading scholars stated that the action appeared morally justified, while noting that they were taking the president’s remarks at face value.

Yet, as the television news depicted boisterous scenes of celebration in front of the White House and at New York City’s Times Square and Ground Zero, these scholars stressed that the moral justification for killing a terrorist did not include a denial of his fundamental human dignity. The killing should provoke solemnity, not jubilation, they said; they stressed that the world’s pre-eminent military power must carefully adhere to the moral guidelines for responding to aggression and conducting warfare.

At the Vatican, Jesuit Father Federico Lombardi, director of the Holy See Press Office, issued a statement May 2, saying that Bin Laden “claimed responsibility for grave acts that spread division and hate among the peoples, manipulating religion to that end.”

But, the brief statement continued, without voicing a judgment regarding the morality of the attack, “A Christian never takes pleasure from the fact of a man’s death, but sees it as an opportunity to reflect on each person’s responsibility, before God and humanity, and to hope and commit oneself to seeing that no event become another occasion to disseminate hate but rather to foster peace.”


The Changing Face of War

James Turner Johnson, a professor of religion at Rutgers University and a leading scholar on just-war theory, in a telephone interview, called the killing of bin Laden “an execution of justice, plain and simple, carried out under the authority of one who can properly use bellum [war] in the service of good.”

Following the 9/11 attacks, when President George W. Bush first declared his administration’s “War on Terror,” some scholars and political commentators questioned whether just-war criteria could be applied to non-traditional warfare against a terrorist movement. Could the United States declare war on al Qaeda and justify U.S. military actions accordingly?

One scholar thinks so. “We have to understand that, in the kind of world in which we live, the just-war tradition needs to develop and ‘stretch,’” said George Weigel, author of Faith, Reason, and the War Against Jihadism and co-author with Johnson of Just War and the Gulf War. “That means recognizing the circumstances in which non-state actors can nonetheless engage in what is properly called ‘war,’ with the subsequent consequences.”

Critics of President Bush’s military policy once argued that the U.S. response to terrorism should fall within the jurisdiction of U.S. law enforcement and be taken out of the hands of the military. President Obama’s statement regarding the killing of bin Laden appeared to set that argument aside, at least for now.

“Attempts to portray this action in Pakistan as the equivalent of the Chicago Police Department breaking into a crack house and shooting a crack-cocaine dealer rather miss the nature of what has been going on between bin Laden and the United States since the mid-1990s,” contended Weigel. “This is not criminal activity/police work, but war.”

Johnson agrees that just-war criteria can be adapted to evaluate both the purpose and prudence of the “War on Terror,” as well as the actual conduct of specific military operations.

“Some contemporary usage tries to restrict the meaning of ‘war’ to the now somewhat outmoded black-letter international law definition, by which it is a state-on-state conflict marked by certain formal procedures. On this definition, there is war, there is peace, defined as not-war, and there is an intermediate status or status mixtus,” said Johnson. 

“But in the concept of justum bellum as originally understood, bellum referred to the use of force on the authority of the leader responsible for the common good of the political community (the original meaning of sovereignty), whether against external threats or against internal ones. Any other person’s use of force was not bellum but a case of duellum, a kind of dueling or feuding,” he noted.

The author of such works as Morality and Contemporary Warfare and The Holy War Idea in Western and Islamic Tradition, Johnson argues that just-war doctrine, which places the responsibility for initiating and conducting war with legitimate leaders, should be defended at a time when terrorist movements claim to represent the common good, and thus demand moral equivalence with legitimate states.

“It is misguided to open up the use of armed force to such persons, whatever the nature of the cause they claim to be serving,” said Johnson. “Classic Islamic tradition on jihad of the sword says much the same thing: The right of resort to such use of force belongs only to the leader of the community, the one responsible for its overall good.”


‘Requires Anguish’

But threats to the integrity of just-war doctrine can also arise from other quarters, and scholars stress that U.S. political and military leaders must resist any effort to water down the moral framework for guiding America’s military role in the world.

“The United States is the most powerful nation on earth. Even when the cause is just, we must act with humility and sobriety,” said Jean Bethke Elshtain, professor of social and political ethics at the University of Chicago and the author of Just War Against Terror: The Burden of American Power in a Violent World.

“The just-war tradition is not something you drag in every time you use force and want to justify it. It has to shape deliberations before the decision to use force is made and the military operation moves forward. It’s a tradition that requires anguish and moral debate,” said Elshtain, a leading public intellectual and a Lutheran who said she would become a Catholic this June.

In 2003, Bush justified the invasion of Iraq as “pre-emptive war.” The official goal of the mission was to block Saddam Hussein from engaging in further aggression and to prevent his use of weapons of mass destruction.

The weapons were never found. At the time, Pope John Paul II strongly opposed the invasion, while some Catholic scholars like Weigel and Michael Novak endorsed it.

Msgr. Stuart Swetland, a professor of ethics at Mount St. Mary’s University and Seminary in Emmitsburg, Md., and a graduate of the U.S. Naval Academy, said he also opposed the 2003 invasion of Iraq, arguing that “pre-emptive war did not meet the criteria of last resort” — exhaust every means possible to avoid war.

But he believes that the killing of bin Laden was morally justified, though he admitted that the scenes of mostly youthful jubilation at Ground Zero and the White House gave him pause.

“It’s important not to take delight in the death of another. In Ezekiel 33:11, we’re told to ‘take no pleasure in the death of the wicked,’” noted Msgr. Swetland, who was preparing for a class discussion on the killing of bin Laden.

In an age of moral relativism, the virtues and painstaking analysis dictated by the just-war doctrine may look like a holdover from another age. But Msgr. Swetland remains cautiously optimistic that just-war criteria will be passed on to the next generation.

“If we don’t have it, we’ll be reduced to pragmatism, and then we’ll justify whatever we want to get away with,” he said. “But we also need levelheaded people in the White House and Congress that speak truth to power.”

Register senior editor Joan Frawley Desmond writes from Chevy Chase, Maryland.

Filed under al qaida, barack obama, george weigel, islam, james turner johnson, jean bethke elshtain, john paul ii, michael novak, obama, osama bin laden