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Guest Thinkers

On Bin Laden’s Death

Osama bin Laden’s assassination is, I believe, a great victory for the U.S. in the fight against violent fundamentalism. It’s also a great relief to me personally that he is dead. Osama bin Laden was a grandiose and vicious man, a moral agent who brought his fate upon himself by murdering thousands of people who had done him no injury. I don’t agree with Lindsay Beyerstein that the U.S. was under any obligation to treat this particular case as a criminal matter—nor, for that matter, that the death of Al Qaeda’s leader actually makes Pakistan less stable. I will sleep a little easier again tonight.

But I can take no lasting pleasure in another man’s death, and can understand Beyerstein’s discomfort with celebrating his killing. I knew people who died in the World Trade Center, and watched children grew up without parents. It is natural and profoundly human for us to feel joy at the death of someone who has inflicted such a grave injury on people we know and love. But I do not believe in retributive justice—do not believe that there is any real justice in inflicting an injury on someone who has injured you.

We killed Bin Laden because alive he represented a grave danger to people in the U.S. and around the world. We put him down in much the same way you would destroy a rabid dog. But any time you have destroy a dog—much less a fellow human being—it is a sad occasion, not a joyful one. If the world is a better place with Osama bin Laden dead, it is still terribly tragic that we should have had to kill him, or that a man could be even capable of such evil in the first place. As the great Taoist philosopher Laozi said, our enemies are not demons, but human beings like ourselves. It’s a tragedy we should have to fight them at all. As Laozi said, how could a decent person ever “rejoice in victory and delight in the slaughter of men?”

UPDATE: When I wrote that I didn’t think the U.S. was under any obligation to treat Osama bin Laden’s case as a criminal matter, I meant that it was perfectly legitimate to consider the raid on his compound in Pakistan as a military operation, and that capturing him so we could put him on trial need not have been the primary goal of the operation. I do regret those words somewhat, however, especially as it appears now that he was unarmed and not resisting. If in fact he offered no resistance, we should have taken him alive. Killing him would have been as wrong—and as contrary to international law—as executing a surrendered soldier on the battlefield. Putting bin Laden on trial would have been problematic in some ways—it would have given him an opportunity to grandstand in front of a microphone, and been a huge political circus in the U.S.—but as Glenn Greenwald says, it would also have been the right thing to do, just as putting the Nazis on trial at Nuremberg was the right thing to do.


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