Justice or vengeance? The killing of bin Laden: The killing of bin Laden

May 4, 2011

"For God and country. Geronimo, Geronimo, Geronimo!" These were reportedly the words the commander of the Navy SEAL team uttered in signaling that Osama bin Laden had been killed and his body captured. In a televised speech announcing this news, President Obama asserted that "justice has been done," and he concluded with lines from the Pledge of Allegiance, along with a parting "May God bless America."

Earlier on the same day, the second Sunday of Easter, also known as Divine Mercy Sunday, Roman Catholics and others around the world celebrated the beatification of Pope John Paul II.

I write neither to cheer nor to jeer about either the killing of bin Laden or the jubilant response by many Americans to his death. I pray that my identity as a baptized Christian takes precedence when the ways of the nation—including actions by the government and the military but also attitudes and activities among many of my fellow citizens (and, alas, many fellow Christians)—are in tension with the ways of God as revealed to us in Jesus Christ. Is the God being invoked by the commander and the president the same God invoked during the beatification ceremony? What kind of justice was done in the killing of bin Laden?

Unquestionably, bin Laden was responsible for terrorist acts of mass murder of Americans and others, including fellow Muslims, around the world. Vatican spokesperson Fr. Federico Lombardi, SJ, observed: "Osama bin Laden, as we all know, bore the most serious responsibility for spreading divisions and hatred among populations, causing the deaths of innumerable people, and manipulating religions to this end." Nevertheless, as John Paul II wrote in his 1995 encyclical Evangelium Vitae ("The Gospel of Life"), because God "is always merciful even when he punishes" evildoers, "not even a murderer loses his personal dignity, and God himself pledges to guarantee this."

I am well aware of how difficult it is to view a murderer as possessing dignity. As a former law enforcement officer in both corrections and policing, I have seen my share of evil. Yet there it is—the view that even murderers still have some dignity is part of a cornerstone of Catholic teaching about the sanctity of life rooted in our being made in God's image and likeness. Accordingly, in the Vatican statement, Fr. Lombardi added: "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." I do not expect all Americans to share this view, but I do hope that Americans who are Christians allow it to shape their attitudes and actions.

Of course, for many Christians this teaching does not mean that a murderer should go unpunished or be allowed to continue to threaten people. Force may be used to protect the innocent. But it must be justified and employed in accordance with the criteria of the just war tradition.

Space does not permit me to conduct an analysis of the war on terror or of every angle of this particular action. (Was it legal? Was it an assassination? Was it the result of information gained through torture?) I'll focus on one aspect that relates to the attitude of celebration on our city streets and university campuses, and for this I'll turn to St. Augustine (354–430), who offered some important lessons for Christians who claim to embark upon just wars.

Augustine anchored the justice of war with God's divine will in creation, wherein God created humankind to live in a just and peaceable community. Just wars are supposed to restore and maintain a semblance of that tranquil order. The aim of a just war—its right intent—should be to restore a just and lasting peace. Augustine wrote,

Peace should be the object of your desire. War should be waged only as a necessity and waged only that through it God may deliver men from that necessity and preserve them in peace. For peace is not to be sought in order to kindle war, but war is to be waged in order to obtain peace. Therefore even in the course of war you should cherish the spirit of a peacemaker.

He argued that wars were justified to defend the innocent, avenge injuries, punish wrongs, and to take back something wrongfully taken. He ruled out revenge and vengeance, let alone mere retributive justice. Rather—and this is tied to his understanding of right intent—his hope was to have evil persons repent and reform, thereby restoring the peace. "We do not ask for vengeance on our enemies on this earth. Our sufferings ought not constrict our spirits so narrowly that we forget the commandments given to us. . . . We love our enemies and we pray for them. That is why we desire their reform and not their deaths."

Augustine did not think that just war contradicted Jesus' injunction to love one's enemies. Just war is a form of love in going to the aid of an unjustly attacked innocent party; however, it is also an expression of love, or "kind harshness," for one's enemy neighbor. It aims at turning the enemy from his wicked ways and toward making amends and helping him rejoin the community of peace and justice. "Therefore, even in waging war," Augustine wrote, "cherish the spirit of a peacemaker, that, by conquering those whom you attack, you may lead them back to the advantages of peace."

But, one may ask, how is this a benefit or how is it loving for those enemies who are killed on the battlefield? Augustine replied, "Let necessity, therefore, and not your will, slay the enemy who fights against you." According to the latest reports, bin Laden was unarmed when he was shot above the eye and in the chest—which leads a number of commentators to question whether these lethal shots were necessary. Split-second decision making by special forces personnel, as with police, especially in the dark and in a building where hostile fire has already occurred, is indeed very difficult. If bin Laden had raised his arms in surrender and still had been shot, I would call that shooting as unnecessary.

Augustine added that a mournful mood should accompany even justified force. In his view, the "real evils in war are love of violence, revengeful cruelty, fierce and implacable enmity, wild resistance, and the lust of power," all of which would be at odds with restoring a just peace. At the end of the day, even though he regarded just war as congruent with Christian love, Augustine held on to the belief that "it is a higher glory still to stay war itself with a word, than to slay men with a sword, and to procure or maintain peace by peace, not by war."

If the God that Augustine had in mind when he formulated these reflections were to shape how we think about war, I doubt there would be much room, if any, for celebrations about what has been said to have been done "for God and country."


What is the point?

This article jumps in so many directions that it is hard to respond to. Is the writer merely saying that celebration is not in order? Or is the writer arguing that this was an unjust action? Pick a point and make it. This article commits the fatal flaw of trying to make a judgment about an action by judging people's reactions to or words about the action. I have a more extensive response to Volf's (more logical) argument at this blog. But two points are in order:

1. The Vatican did not condemn or judge this action, although this article seems to imply that it did.

2. It is a weighty thing to declare the actions of another person/nation are outside of the just war tradition. To imply that without careful reasoning is a mistake. How does this writer know the attitude or the motiviation of people involved?




Reply to "What is the point?"

Maybe you should read this post again before you comment, if you think it goes in too many directions.  Is there a mandate against making multiple points in one blog post?  The "fatal flaw" you outline here makes absolutely no sense, but thanks for plugging your own blog, anyway.  Geez.

As for your two bullet points, if you know anything about this writer, you know that he can very well reason out whether something aligns within just war tradition or not, according to the criteria of the tradition, not his own personal feelings.  I'm sure he'd be glad to share his thoughts on that, but as he points out here, he doesn't have room to go into the whole discussion in one blog post.  He has probably already published articles on that very discusion, as that is an area of expertise for him.  Also, is it that difficult to tell the attitude or motivation of the military operatives and civilians he's referring to here, based on the responses we have heard and seen in the media?  And what does that question have to do with judging whether an action meets the just war criteria?  Just war doesn't consider personal motivation or attitude, but whether the use of force is carried out with "right intent."  Maybe you need to check it out some more, before you comment.


Well said

Betzy, maybe you are right. Maybe I did not read it carefully enough and maybe I am looking for more than is possible from a blog post. I do understand the just war tradition but this just seemed like he want from a reflection about celebration to a reflection/judgment based on a too short discussion of the tradition and it left me genuinely confused. But I probably did need to read it again. thanks


Reply to "What is the point?"


If you think this post goes in too many directions, maybe you should read it through again before you respond.  Is there a mandate that a blog post can only make one point?  Also, the “fatal flaw” you point out makes absolutely no sense, but thanks for shamelessly plugging your own blog, anyway.  Geez.


As for your two numbered points, I disagree with you.  The writer quotes the statement from the Vatican as a guide for Christians’ response to the event.  That’s it.


If you know anything about this writer, you know that he could very well share with you a lot of reasoning about whether or not this action meets with the just war tradition, based on just war criteria, not his own personal feelings.  As he mentions, a blog post is not the place to go into great detail about that debate, though he could go into great detail, as that is an area of expertise for him.  He has published works about just war theory and the application of it in modern military and policing action.  Further, are the attitudes of the military operatives and the President unknown to us, after all that the media has shared with us?  I don’t think so.  And even if we don’t know their complete motivation, just war theory doesn’t take into account personal motivation or attitude, save in the expression of “right intent” in regard to a particular application of the use of force.  It sounds like you need to look into it more, not the writer of this post.




I apologize for posting twice.  I was stupid not to realize the delay that would occur before a post would show.  Clearly, I need to learn more about posting to blog posts before I do that again.  Mea culpa.

Thoughtful reflection, thanks.

Thanks for that analysis, Dr. Winwright. There are indeed lots of questions to ask as we sort through the unfolding reports and try to dig into the wisdom of the just war tradition. I find your claim that even the most hardened criminal or terrorist retains human dignity to be both true but challenging. Also, I wish we knew more about the firefight and whether the SEAL team was instructed to assassinate, or capture if possible. Of course we'll never know what would have happened if he had been captured. The ideal situation would probably have been through the judicial process. But would that have given OBL more opportunity to recruit followers? 

Winright has good comments, but we don't know all the facts

We don't know all the facts surrounding the death of bin Laden, so Winright's comments, insightful as they are, are based on shifting sand with respect to this specific case.  Let's wait to find out more facts before drawing conclusions.  I don't think most serious-minded Christians, be they liberal, conservative, or somewhere in between, celebrate the taking of a human life.  I think they do, however, and with much justification, celebrate the neutralizing of a force that has taken thousands of innocent human lives and would have undoubtedly continued that course were it not stopped.     

facts, and truth. from the neo-ana-baptist

I responded to Miroslav's postings, and I am truly glad that we are talking about Augustine and no longer the Peace of Westphalia.  My co-communicants of course in ana-baptism would question the concept of "just war", but at least we have theology speaking to culture and not ideology.

As a preliminary concept I would like to posit that Augustine would not have applied "just war" to bin laden, he would have applied ex-Roman Law of crucifiction to a rebel.  While we might extrapolate a bit from "just war", broadly it is inapplicable.

I think as theologians (as all good Catholics are to be) and as Dr. Winright is formally, we need to be less concerned (maybe because we will never really know) what the end of this man's life says.  But, what the facts of his whole life, or at least his jihad project, says, to understad how we construct a theology of polis or "political theology" to engage in these situations.  Based on that project we hold ourselves and the various political constructs to that standard of truth.

When a man or a group decides to fight a state or states, and kills people in that fight both officers/actors of the state, as well as random onlookers, what would be standards of justice and the means?  Where does one start Aquinas?  The Mitvah?  

Beyond justice, as an individual who is a mere communicant in the Body of Christ, not sanctioned to dispense justice, but enjoying the fruits of it in a peaceful community/state, what are my duties in consideration of this murderous and unrepentant imago dei, and should justice be done what should be my homily, should it include thankfulness, etc.?  There is some of that in Winright and Miroslav, but not in my mind yet fully developed.

By way of reference, in the main, for the US, the standard of Justice for murder, specifically multiple, mass, and under the "Model Penal Code" "special circumstances" - is death.  After ten years of public discussion the US has yet come to a consensus on which of the three/four historical frameworks of law (the shadow of justice) should be used - ie the means of justice.  I am not suggesting that is an area to discuss here.


split-second decision-making

The Navy SEAL team may have made a split-second decision on whether to shoot.  However, we don't really know because, thus far, the President has not clearly stated whether capture was ever contemplated.  (His comments seem to indicate that it was not.)  I watched the interview on 60 Minutes with anticipation, hoping (against hope) that there would be some moral depth to the questions.  Instead we heard softball questions and the tired analogy of spiking a football.  When the President saw the photo of the body with part of the skull blown away, his reaction was, 'That's him'.  Really?  Was there no fear of God?  No dread for the soul of this person who had done so much evil?  It may well be the President's view that capture was not feasible.  I just want to hear him discuss it, rather than dismiss those who express interest in the ethical dimension of his actions as needing to "have their heads examined."  This man is more than capable of a sophisticated discussion in this arena.  However, he seems intent on playing the commander-in-chief role.  Is he going to stick with this one-note electoral cycle performance?  I pray that the President proves otherwise in the days to come. 


Let's get our heads out of our proverbial hind quarters on this one. I'm with our gutsy president: anyone who does not realize the death of Bin Laden is a good thing should have their head examined. Taking this fellow out saves us a lot of head tripping conversation, legal wrangling, and pointless figner pointing.

Heads out of hind quarters

I'm with you. While I don't support the taking of life as punsihment for the taking of life in this instance I believe justice was done. The world is a better place without UBL. 


Ancient Wisdom

Tao Te Ching

Written by Lao-tzu
Chapter 31

Weapons are the tools of violence;
all decent men detest them.

Weapons are the tools of fear;
a decent man will avoid them
except in the direst necessity
and, if compelled, will use them
only with the utmost restraint.
Peace is his highest value.
If the peace has been shattered,
how can he be content?
His enemies are not demons,
but human beings like himself.
He doesn't wish them personal harm.
Nor does he rejoice in victory.
How could he rejoice in victory
and delight in the slaughter of men?

He enters a battle gravely,
with sorrow and with great compassion,
as if he were attending a funeral.

Tao Te Ching

Thank you. The sacred writings of most religious traditions, the philosophical truths of various cultures, and the prevailing wisdom of the ages on matters having to do with war and peace, justice and love, suffering and mercy, pain and compassion share a common theme. It is captured well in this piece by Loa-tzu. Unfortunately, all too many of those created in the image of God look the other way when it is convenient to do so.

The sad part of the reaction to the death of Osama bin Laden is the fact that many saw it as a reason to celebrate. Just what are they celebrating and why? Are we now free and secure from any further threats to our well-being? Hardly. Life goes on. There will be more violence, wars will continue, enemies will be demonized, and we will yearn for peace. Scripture reminds us to ",,,be vigilant. Like a roaring lion your adversary the devil prowls around, looking for someone to devour." (1 Peter 5:8 - NRSV) We live with evil in us and among us.

I once saw a bumper sticker which read: "When Jesus said: 'Love your enemies, I think he meant don't kill them.'" Bin Laden is dead. Sober-minded people will find little about that in which to rejoice. And certainly not for God and country.


P.S. Why all the anonymity? If you have something to say, put a name to it.

A Needed Discussion, Not Only Here

For such a small space, a very needed discussion of an important topic.  The criticism is unwarranted.  The night Bin Laden's death was announced, I was in Washington, DC, on business and walked right by the White House on the space that would be filled by revelers an hour later.  I walked by as they must have been setting up whatever technology was needed to broadcast.  Every time I walk by the White House, I wonder both what momentous decisions are being made and what mundane thing a president is doing in the privacy of the family quarters.  I imagine him falling asleep in front of the TV after a long day, the same as I do often.  After a drink in the hotel bar nearby, I went to my room and heard shouts in the street, one of those plastic horns from the World Cup bleating. I turned on the television and learned what had taken place.  I thought about going out to be part of history but stayed in my room, troubled.  The next day, my daughter at school in Missouri sent a video of students there celebrating with a sarcastic comment about being in school in Missouri.  She need not have been sarcastic about Missouri.  The same celebration took place in the most culturally liberal places of our nation, too.  I am glad in a way to learn that, despite our family's overall lack of religiosity, of our less than stellar involvement in church, that the basic tenents expressed so clearly by St. Augustine in this matter are close to our hearts.  I have concluded that I will never know whether this was a just killing.  None of us will ever know exactly what transpired between that young man and an infamous old man in a matter of seconds, or even 10 minutes if the report of the woman who was there can be believed.  What I value is that we have this discussion and wish those of us who ask these questions could find better ways to see that the larger public discussions going on around u s reflect what we think.  However valuable picking apart anything is, let's not stop at the picking.             

Generation Gap

I serve a congregation in a college town.  Like the author, I consider myself a follower of just war theory.  I preached on Sunday with great ambivilance about the celebrations that occurred on our campus and around the country.  I agree that any violent killing--no matter the character of the deceased--is a time for serious reflection not joyous celebration.  Yet, I am not 20 having lived in a world always shaped by fear and terror.  This conflict with terrorists does not fit very neatly into traditional just war theory where there is often an assumption of nation states with legitimate rulers.  This war will never have a V-E or V-J Day.  Al Quaida and even bin Laden cannot sign a peace accord or surrender.  This event is the closest thing that young adults will have to a "victory."  So, as distasteful as I think it is, it is hard for me to sit in judgment of their celebrations.  President Obama did say that capture of bin Laden was an option.  But in this "asymmetical warfare" how could a real trial have happened?  How could UBL have been kept secure, and how could there be an impartial jury? 

I have been heartened by the conversations that are occurring in our congregation.  I hope that happens in and between communities of faith all over.  Thank you for helping that conversation along, Christian Century!

Letter from Jon Fogleman

Tobias Winright provided an excellent reflection on the killing of Osama bin Laden (“Justice or vengeance?” May 31). His reference to Augustine’s belief that “a mournful mood should accompany even justified force” is timely.

I am currently reading Amish Grace: How Forgiveness Transcended Tragedy (2007), an account of the Amish response to the massacre of five little girls and the serious wounding of five others in a Penn­sylvania schoolhouse in 2006. The Amish response of forgiveness of the killer and their expressions of grace to his family are remarkable.  The reader is reminded that “in keeping with their emphasis on following Jesus,” the Amish people “consider Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount among the most important texts in the Scriptures.” On the same page, an Amish minister is quoted: “Forgiveness is all about Matthew 5 and the Sermon on the Mount and loving our enemies.”

I prefer the Amish emphasis on Jesus’ understanding of forgiveness and grace and nonviolence as articulated in their tradition to Augustine’s just war theory when it comes to reflecting on these matters.

Jon Fogleman

Guelph, Ont.

Letter from Bud Dixen

The conversation surrounding the killing of bin Laden is replete with hand-wringing by those who contend it was a bad but necessary thing to kill him. They then go on to state that they feel terrible about it. They want it both ways--we shouldn’t dance in the streets, but we should be happy it happened. They evoke Augustine’s just war theory. I’m not buying a bit of it.

My résumé does not include the words “perfect disciple,” but we who have been baptized, confirmed and in some cases ordained said we would follow Jesus. I hear people today saying they will follow Jesus if it’s convenient or if it doesn’t go beyond their need for revenge or if it ­doesn’t conflict with our national interest. Years ago Martin Marty said we love our enemies until we actually have some. I fear he is right.

Bud Dixen

Circle Pines, Minn.

Letter from Lyman Newton

According to Hebrew literature, when the Israelites crossed the Red Sea and were able to cross on dry land, the waters came back and drowned the Egyptians--and there was great rejoicing. But then someone said to God, “Why aren’t you happy?” God looked at him sorrowfully and said, “The Egyptians were my children too.”

Nothing has been said about the mother of Osama bin Laden. What might she have been thinking? What does a mother think when her son submits to capital punishment? Perhaps there is another side of this story.

Lyman Newton

Batavia, Ill.