Killing bin Laden: Catholic Perspective

So it has been announced that Osama bin Laden is dead.


The twisted, evil mastermind responsible for the deaths of thousands of innocent human beings has been shuffled off this mortal coil.

This provides a measure of justice. Not full justice. That’s in God’s hands. But some justice.

Of course, Our Lord’s command to love our enemies and pray for those who persecute us still applies. We must hope that Osama bin Laden repented at the last second, or that he had been crazy for years and not responsible for his actions, or that God might provide for his salvation in some other way.

And we must remember that Christ himself died to make salvation possible for all men, Osama bin Laden included.

But possibility does not equal actuality. As Pope Benedict has reminded us in various works, evil is real and hell is a real choice. If anyone, judging by outward, human appearances, was ripe for going there, Osama bin Laden was a plausible candidate.

This may have even applied to his final moments. Reports are still sketchy, but it is reported that he died resisting the offensive against his compound, which may mean he was wielding a weapon. It is also reported that a woman who was one of the five people killed in the compound was used as a human shield. This may mean — and future reports may clarify this — that bin Laden himself grabbed the woman himself and tried to use her as a shield while he pointed a weapon at her or at others.

Not the kind of choices one wants to make just before one meets one’s Maker.

After his death, steps were reportedly taken to confirm bin Laden’s identity, including the taking of a DNA sample that is still being processed. Then his body was taken out of Pakistan and buried at sea.

That’s a good choice, actually. It denies future Islamist fanatics of a burial site where they could alternately go on pilgrimage or bomb something.

Of course, they will be trying to bomb things anyway, but they would have done that even if bin Laden were alive. It’s what they do.

The question is: How do you minimize that?

Burial at sea is one measure. Another is found in the response issued today by the Vatican spokesman, Fr. Federico Lombardi, and reported by my colleague Edward Pentin:

Osama Bin Laden—as everyone knows—has had the gravest responsibility for spreading hatred and division among people, causing the deaths of countless people, and exploiting religion for this purpose.

Faced with the death of a man, a Christian never rejoices, but reflects on the serious responsibility of everyone before God and man, and hopes and pledges that every event is not an opportunity for a further growth of hatred, but of peace.

I was surprised that the Holy See had a statement so quickly and that it was so well done. This is what the Vatican needed to say, something that did not appear to let bin Laden off the hook morally but also did not appear to rejoice at his passing and that was an appeal for interreligious harmony and peace.

The statement that a Christian never rejoices at the death of a man is a positive affirmation that the Vatican needed to make. It’s also true in the sense that death as a physical evil is not to be wished upon anybody for its own sake. That is not to say that one cannot be glad that justice has been in some measure served, that bin Laden won’t be masterminding any more plots, etc.

Of course, it would be foolish for the Vatican to point out those things. They would be precisely the things that would inflame anti-Christian anger in the Muslim world and subvert the peace message the Holy See is trying to send.

We will, of course, have to see how well that works out. According to Wikileaks, bin Laden’s lieutenant Khalid Sheikh Mohammad said the organization had a nuke hidden in Europe for use if bin Laden were captured or killed.

Let’s hope that’s bad intel. And let’s pray that if such a device exists that it is quickly found and the plot to use it disrupted.

In fact, let us all pray hard about this and other potential reprisals, both here in the West and in Muslim-majority countries, where Christian minorities are at risk (Pakistan, where bin Laden was killed, is one such country; so is Iraq).

The fact that we may now face reprisals — and the fact that we might even get hit hard — may be cause for people to wonder whether killing Osama bin Laden was worth it.

Let’s hope so. Let’s pray so.

The decision required a judgment call, weighing the potential risks and benefits. History teaches that killing your enemies, and especially their leaders, is a good way to discourage them from attacking you. On the other hand, making a martyr of someone doesn’t always work (cf. Roman Empire, Christianization Of).

There are other moral dimensions to the decision to kill bin Laden. According to some sources the mission was to kill, not capture. That’s a potentially defensible choice based on the heightened risks that would be involved for the personnel responsible for trying to bring about a capture rather than a kill. Also, and even more so, a capture would create a security nightmare by having a live, captured bin Laden as the focus of “Free Osama” reprisals.

A mysterious disappearance would result in the same thing. Even if we didn’t announce his capture, his own people would know he’d been snatched and assume he was still alive.

“He’s dead. He was buried at sea. Move on with your lives” is a better message for the Islamist community.

The big question, still, is what kind of reprisals may be coming and whether bin Laden will long-term be perceived as a martyr or a failure.

Let’s pray.

What do you think?