Should We Fret Over the Morality of the Bin Laden Killing?

"We might ask ourselves," writes Noam Chomsky about the Bin Laden mission, "how we would be reacting if Iraqi commandos landed at George W. Bush’s compound, assassinated him, and dumped his body in the Atlantic." This seems wrongheaded to me, but I think it's worth considering why. Especially as Chomsky's theme here—that the killing of Osama bin Laden was illegal, immoral, uncivilized—has been made by others (like, for instance, Michael Moore) this week.


The notion that the killing was illegal depends on the notion that bin Laden should be treated as a criminal, plain and simple. He was not. He was treated as an enemy soldier, to whom the rules that applied were those of war, not a police action. Soldiers, as Christopher Beam explained in Slate explains here, aren't obliged to ask if the enemy is dangerous or hostile. They can presume both. They are obligated to accept a surrender. But they're not obligated to spend time trying to elicit one.

On the other hand, claims that the killing was immoral are focussed on the dubiousness of revenge. I don't understand this. Yes, bin Laden was the sponsor and boaster-in-chief for an attack that killed 3,000 people (including a neighbor of mine, and yes, I let out an extremely satisfied yelp when I heard the news, I'm not saying revenge is irrelevant). But he wasn't merely someone who did us harm and vanished before we could punch back. He was, reports say, still at the nerve center of future attacks. That's where Chomsky's analogy breaks down. George Bush, whatever the damage his decisions did to Iraq, is now harmless. Bin Laden was still working to kill people. As for his burial at sea, what was the alternative? Islamic law required burial by sundown, so the military would have been accused to abusing the body if it had not disposed of it.

The real point of Chomsky's Bush analogy, though, is to make people feel outrage that the mission could take place at all. The United States sent in a team of commandos to kill our enemy in the heart of another sovereign nation, and this is a wildly strange and rare deed. Why did we do this? Perhaps the simplest answer is the strongest: We did it because we could.

It seems to me that Chomsky and Moore are horrified by the prospect of human affairs being run with reasons like that—without any fundamental law or principle. They can't bear to see the world as it is seen by, say, the philosopher John Gray: A place where moral "truths" are simply after-the-fact justifications. ("Ideas of justice," Gray wrote in Straw Dogs, "are as timeless as fashions in hats.") If Enlightenment ideas of freedom and human rights now dominate the political world, Gray argues, don't thank (or blame) the merits of those concepts; instead, blame (or thank) the wealth and weapons of the nations that espouse those ideas. Ideas come and go; fighting is forever.

Chomsky idealistically affirms there are objective standards in human affairs, against which any state action can be judged. Gray sees that this is not true. Many thinkers who agree would add, though, that we must not say so. After all, the effort to meet ethical standards keeps horrors at bay, even if those standards have no objectively certain basis in reality. Gray is unusual in his complete rejection of this attempt to be rid of God while keeping moral notions that originated in religion. Humanity moves along, he believes, but it doesn't in any way progress.

If that's true, then the killing of bin Laden was simply a win for our side and a loss for his, and we should see it plain and hold the moral palaver. He wanted to kill us, so we killed him.

Chomsky isn't alone in being revolted by the thought that this is all there is to the matter. In my neighborhood in Brooklyn, for instance, it's a truism that "violence never solves anything."

Which is, of course, nonsense. People who speak these words can do so only because they benefit from a long history of past violence—the conquest of the land by Europeans, the exploitation of slaves and later immigrants by those with more advantages, the American Revolution that led to the society in which we comfortably live. Moreover, we can discuss violence in safety because of the state threatens future violence.

If someone were to break into my place and steal all my stuff, I would not have much hope of getting it back with my 53-year-old frame and my weapon of choice (sarcasm).  So I would call the police. Who carry guns. There's a reason for that: Violence solves many things.

Any civilization must be ambivalent about that fact, and President Obama has expressed that ambivalence in his decisions: He's the man who had bin Laden killed and the man who won't release a photo of the bloody corpse. What we struggle for in modern society is a means to transform our urges to random and unpredictable mayhem into something controlled and fair, which serves the good of all instead of the interests of the worst. (So we say, anyway; Gray would say we're fooling ourselves.) That struggle may be an illusion. But it's one I wouldn't want to live without.

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