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Analogies and the Death of Bin Laden Print E-mail
By Francis J. Beckwith   
Friday, 13 May 2011

N. T. Wright, former Anglican Bishop of Durham, is one of the foremost theologians and biblical scholars in the world. Professor of New Testament and Early Christianity at the University of St. Andrews, his work on the doctrine of justification, controversial among Evangelical Protestants, is in many ways remarkably close to the Catholic view. For this reason, Professor Wright’s work, much to his chagrin, has been instrumental in leading some former Anglicans to the Catholic Church. I have long been an admirer of the former bishop, and have learned much from his impressive and compelling scholarship.

Last week, however, Professor Wright ventured from the confines of his expertise and into the field of international relations, arguing that the United States had acted unjustly in its successful finding and killing of Osama Bin Laden on May 1 in Pakistan. To make his case, Wright offers this analogy

Consider the following scenario. A group of IRA terrorists carry out a bombing raid in London. People are killed and wounded. The group escapes, first to Ireland, then to the United States, where they disappear into the sympathetic hinterland of a country where IRA leaders have in the past been welcomed at the White House. Britain cannot extradite them, because of the gross imbalance of the relevant treaty. So far, this is not far from the truth.
 
But now imagine that the British government, seeing the murderers escape justice, sends an aircraft carrier (always supposing we’ve still got any) to the Nova Scotia coast. From there, unannounced, two helicopters fly in under the radar to the Boston suburb where the terrorists are holed up. They carry out a daring raid, killing the (unarmed) leaders and making their escape. Westminster celebrates; Washington is furious.

What’s the difference between this and the recent events in Pakistan? Answer: American exceptionalism. America is allowed to do it, but the rest of us are not. By what right? Who says?

This analogy does not work. Although he is likely correct that Washington would be furious, it does not follow that the actions of the British government were unjust. After all, not every furious government is automatically correct simply because it is furious. In order to establish the injustice of the bin Laden killing – which Professor Wright is attempting to do by offering this analogy – he would have to show that the example he offers is indeed an injustice. But it seems to me that reasonable people can think otherwise.


       
What if they’d been after Hitler hiding in Moscow?

Suppose, however, we changed the cast of characters a bit in order to upgrade Professor Wright’s analogy so that it more closely resembles how the United States views its war with Al-Qaeda and those who harbor and protect its leadership. Instead of members of Britain’s domestic terrorist group, the IRA, it is Adolph Hitler, the head of a foreign power seeking world domination by whatever means necessary. And instead of the United States, it is the Soviet Union in which Hitler is hiding. And let us further suppose that we are in the midst of the Second World War, and that although the Germans have broken their treaty with the USSR and the latter is now a U.S. ally, the Americans are not quite sure, for a variety of reasons, they can trust the Soviets. U.S. intelligence discovers that Hitler, with his family and a few friends, is hiding in a Moscow home only a few blocks from a Soviet military base. Without telling the Soviets, the United States sends in, via helicopters, the Naval Combat Demolition Unit (NCDU), the 1940s equivalent of the Navy SEALSs, to either capture or kill Hitler. The NCDU busts into the home and after a brief gunfight discovers Hitler on the third floor. 

When they arrive in the Fuhrer’s presence, several thoughts go through the sailors’ minds. First, the room is not well-lit. Second, Hitler may be booby-trapped. After all, they had been briefed about that possibility by their commanding officers prior to the mission. Third, they notice that within a few feet of Hitler are several automatic weapons, though he does not reach for them. And fourth, Hitler does not immediately surrender, but just stands there for a few moments.

These thoughts, by the way, occur in a split second, for these sailors have undergone thousands of hours of rigorous training in order to quickly assess situations in just this way. Although Hitler is technically “unarmed,” the sailors take no chances with the architect of the Holocaust and an enemy combatant in a just war. So, they fire several bullets into his brain, resulting in the Fuhrer’s death.

Now let us imagine another scenario. It is 2:00 AM on July 6, 1535, and Sir Thomas More, a Catholic, is sitting in his cell in the Tower of London awaiting execution for the crime of treason. For he had denied that the King is the Supreme Head of the Church of England. Suppose the Jesuits, formed only a year earlier to combat the growth of the Reformation, concoct a plot to help spring the imprisoned More. They arrive at the Tower at 3:00 AM. In order to get to More they have to kill several of the guards. After doing so, they carry More off to a nearby safe house. He stays there for several days. Then on the evening of July 11, while wearing an elaborate disguise, he sneaks out of London and departs to Rome. When he arrives in the Eternal City, he is greeted by Pope Paul III, who issues a statement praising Sir Thomas More and the brave Jesuits who risked their lives to prevent a grave injustice. Rome celebrates; Westminster is furious. But, of course, as we already know, not every furious government is justified in its fury. I have no doubt that even Professor Wright would agree.

 
Francis J. Beckwith is Professor of Philosophy & Church-State Studies at Baylor University. His blog is returntorome.com. His most recent book is Politics for Christians: Statecraft as Soulcraft

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Comments (20)Add Comment
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written by Diane Peske, May 13, 2011
Probably the best thing both Wright and Beckwith are doing is getting us to seriously grapple with issues of war, justice, retribution, mercy, and how this fits into the wider reality of our modern world. And for this I salute The Catholic Thing for publishing Dr. Beckwith's thoughts.

For me none of the analogies suggested come close to covering the moral issues. Bin Laden was never an 'armed combatant' in the context of a declared war. Hence using Hitler is not a perfect analogy. Bin Laden was an international terrorist where innocent people from dozens of countries were killed...many in the course of their normal days...hence working within a single country analogy of the IRA ( United Kingdom) isn't a complete comparison either.

The Thomas More analogy, while encapsulating the religious elements, isn't fair since More never was accused of real criminal activities - only religious arguments of theology and remains a sympathetic figure regardless of religious persuasion.

We live in a world with resources never dreamed of before. Where evil can grow in ways that extend beyond any reasonable possiblity to damage, maime, kill and destroy ("the thief comes not but to kill, steal and destroy," Jesus said..never is it more true than today) not just those chosen to engage in armed combat - hence clear issues of things like 'just wars' that the Church has grappled with for centuries don't completely cover the questions I think we face today. So the Church NEEDS to continue to lead in thinking these questions through.

Sadly, our world has found a murkiness of undeclared conflicts capable of destructions, atrocities, and evil beyond the minds of most humans who ever lived, and this causes the struggles we are trying to answer in places like The Catholic Thing.

It seems to me the question of taking out Bin Laden is one that forces us to look into the 'small' matters as much as the big ones to try and piece together a coherent moral focus.

1)Why didn't the US simply bomb the place from miles away?
2)Why didn't the helos simply get a good, close-up and then bomb the compound?
3)Why didn't the SEALS shoot to kill every single person they saw, including children?
4)Why did the SEALS shoot the woman in the room in the leg first, instead of to kill?
5)Why did the US even attempt to follow Muslim burial guidelines to dispose of Bin Laden's body?
6)Why has Obama chosen NOT to display the photos of the death?

I submit it is in these smaller questions that we might find some reasons to look for morality, for mercy, for retribution, for justice....

The ONLY country in the world with the skills and resources to have found, planned and executed the course that led to the death of this internationally known terrorist, criminal, financeer of murderous plots, known hater of anyone non-Islamist as he was...was the United States. The decisions made to seek his death stemmed from the fact that THIS man declared war on an entire nation ( and in reality any non-Islamic non-Shariah compliant society)20 years ago and then carried out plots to prove his point. Our response, anemic in the 90's finally came to a focus almost 10 years ago, 9/11/01.

It IS queasy to think about that night on the first of May. Bravo to those who question unthinking revelry in response.

But it is, in my opinion, a very poor analogy,Wright has chosen to make his moral comparisons.

Thanks Dr. Beckwith for your response to it.
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written by Thomas Mathew, May 13, 2011
Spot on
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written by Bill Colburn, May 13, 2011
I appreciated Wright's analogy in that he was not attempting to create an identical story - for there is none, as we've seen. Rather, he seemed to be primarily interested in eliciting some deeper thoughts about all this since the incident exposed some serious theological flaws among many Christians. We would be foolish to pass by this incident without much deep reflection. We would be even more foolish to merely conclude that it was not appropriate to celebrate bin Laden's assassination. There is, as Wright is suggesting, a need to rethink the kind of theological foundation from which we operate. Do our responses truly represent Jesus to the world..or not?
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written by Martial Artist, May 13, 2011
@Diane Peski,

I tend to agree with most all of what you have written, with one reservation. I have not rigorously followed the news coverage on the raid, nor on its preparations, so the following may be hampered by my being unaware of a relevant fact. That said, I do not recall having heard, at any time since the success of the raid was announced, that the President (of whom, I will freely admit, I can not be considered a fan on any basis) ordered the killing of bin Laden, other than as a possible consequence of his violently resisting capture and "extradition by extralegal means." If that is not because I "didn't get the memo," then I would assert that anyone who charges that the President literally "ordered that bin Laden be killed" and builds an objection on that basis is simply wildly mistaken. He (or she) would first have to make the case that Mr. Obama's predecessor (of whom I was also not a fan) was equivalently wrong in declaring bin Laden an outlaw and placing a bounty on his head. Neither Wright, nor judge Napolitano have made such a case, and they have had almost a decade to do so. In my book that marks the end of discussion.

Pax et bonum,
Keith Töpfer
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written by Martial Artist, May 13, 2011
I suppose I should have added to my earlier post, by way of full disclosure, that I am a retired Naval officer, although never in any way formally connected to the SEAL community, although I have had several who were respected friends.

Keith Töpfer
LCDR, USN [ret]
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written by Hen, May 13, 2011
Many thusly have commented, using this far fetched idea that Bin Laden was wired with a bomb. It's simply not believable, because of the long elapsed time factor from 9/11, and the reality that this man was cohabiting with women there, and children were being nurtured there too.
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written by Billy Bean, May 13, 2011




Hen: I, too, think it unlikely that Bin Laden would have been wired with a bomb. But, given his obviously casual attitude towar dthe value of innocent human life (I will not deign to debate the innocence of those killed on in the 9/11 attacks), and the indifference of militant Islam to the dignity of women and protection of children, I do not believe it unthinkable that this man would have been willing to sacrifice even his own children to further his religious and political ideology. With such a man as this, it is perhaps best to err on the side of caution.




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written by Louise, May 14, 2011
This discussion brings to mind a quotation of Golda Mair when she was fighting for the survival of Israel: To her enemies she said,

"We don't hate you because you kill our children. We hate you because you make us kill yours."

I don't think that even the United States has ever used that criterion as a reason for going to war and especially not for killing bin Laden.

BTW, I thought that the jubilee and the "victory lap" and the "spiking the footfall" were, in their entirety, reprehensible and not worthy of our country.
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written by debby, May 14, 2011
only God knows.
however, Jesus did say while living under an oppressive foreign gov't, "Whoever lives by the sword, dies by the sword."
i wonder if our Great Holy Father as his first act of Mercy as an official "Blessed" of the True Faith had prayed for Bin Laden's soul AND mortal demise. just a thot from a lover of souls - even the disgusting ones.
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written by Rob, May 14, 2011
Several of the comments discuss the justice of the U.S. military action insofar as it relates to Osama Bin Laden and his family. This is a worthy topic of discussion but it is not what Wright and Beckwith are discussing/debating.

Wright's contention is that the U.S. acted unjustly in its treatment of Pakistan, violating their sovereignty. Beckwith's "historical fiction" counter-examples show that violating the sovereignty of another nation is not necessarily unjust (and I likewise think that Great Britain might well not be acting unjustly in Wright's own analogy). To say that the St. Thomas More analogy fails because he was not accused of real criminal activities misses the point entirely: the analogies are comparing the governments involved on both sides, not the "target" of the operations. If the More analogy fails it is because the Society of Jesus and the Church of England were not formal allies as the U.S. and Pakistan are.
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written by ZN, May 14, 2011
There are some 'silly' things here. One does not 'break into' the TOWER OF LONDON; HAVE YOU SEEN IT? Not in the 1500's. Not with any sort of a-historical jokes about Hitler or helicopters. What exactly (if anything) have you read on the scholarly young gentlemen, lawyers and philosophers, who formed the heart of the Jesuits (from the college of Sta. Barbara at the University of Paris)? You are being absurd. These are not 'analogies'. How quickly they went to nurse the sick and teach in the foreign missions.

But back to the REALITIES of imprisonment and death. Have you not read of the imprisonment and death of Mary, Queen of Scots, in that infamous tower? Could any of her soldiers or her courtiers get her out? Of the ten years' spent in 'solitary' there, by the aristocratic martyr St. Philip Howard? And are you quite certain that St. Thomas More, whom you grossly denigrate here, would have consented to escape? You can stop this 'cops and robbers' nonsense. Was his own life his highest value? Surely even you don't think so. Didn't you ever have to read Socrates' own arguments to his gaoler, as to why he would not run away from the dubious 'justice' of his native land?
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written by Max, May 14, 2011
The first analogy is much more coherent. Just admit that America can do whatever it wants, however it wants, because we are the good guys and everyone else is evil.

Judge Andrew Napolitano has had excellent commentary on this situation.
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written by Richard W Comerford, May 14, 2011
Re: Homicide DoubleStandard

Soldiers and Marines serving in Afghanistan and Iraq are routinely charged with homicide under the UCMJ if they shoot and kill an unarmed civilian even if the victim is a known terrorist. However when SEALS shoot to death in cold blood an unarmed, sick, old man in his bedroom in Pakistan they are not charged with homicide but hailed as heroes. Maybe the 5th Commandment is not operable in Pakistan?

God bless

Richard W Comerford
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written by D.A. Howard, May 14, 2011
Francis, there are million analogies. We need to combat liberalism and moral relativism in the Church. Keep up the good fight and welcome to the Church.
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written by D.A. Howard, May 14, 2011
Libertarianism is condemned by the Church.
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written by sparks1093, May 15, 2011
I used to support the death penalty, but the closer I've come to God the more I realize that the death penalty is an unjust punishment. OBL was summarily executed, and received no due process. Use all of the analogies you wish, this was an unjust act. The SEALS can shoot a woman in the leg to get her out of the way without killing her but they can't shoot to incapaciate an unarmed man? The last report that I saw said that only one of the men killed was actually firing at the SEALS, the remaining 5 were unarmed. No, this was not justified given the facts as we know them. OBL could have been taken alive, which would have posed numerous problems for the U.S., so the easy way out was taken.
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written by Rob, May 15, 2011
ZN:
You also seem to be missing the point. Prof. Beckwith is not putting together a wishlist of other military actions. He's not saying the Jesuits would have done such a thing. He is asking, "Would it have been unjust to liberate St. Thomas More from the Tower of London by violating England's sovereign rights?" The actors involved are just window-dressing; focus on the point of the analogy.

Wright's charge is that the U.S. committed an injustice by violating Pakistan's sovereignty (it is perfectly fair to defend the position that we did do so). Beckwith is countering that it may not always be an injustice to violate the sovereignty of another nation. His historical-fiction examples are meant to illustrate only this and nothing more. He even says, with which I agree, that the Great Britain in Wright's example would NOT be acting unjustly (or at least might not be) in taking matters into its own hands against the U.S.

As I said in my last post, there are many aspects of the Bin Laden operation which can be debated. What is important (as it is in any other context) is to focus on what is actually being discussed and not on what else we could be discussing.
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written by Stephen E Dalton, May 16, 2011
"A sick, old, man". Ah, come on Richard! OBL was a mass murderer who has never stopped killing. If He wanted to avoid the comeuppence he got, he could have surrendered anytime to US athorities in the last ten years. Also, Richard, there was always the possibility he might have had a concealed weapon on him. Why should our soldiers take any chances of being killed by a concealed suicide bomb or a small concealed mini-sub-gun? Well Dick, keep swallowing camels and straining gnats! You're good at that!
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written by Richard W Comerford, May 16, 2011
Re: Homicide Double Standard

"OBL was a mass murderer who has never stopped killing"
The 5th Commandment forbids the murder of both the guilty and innocent.

"If He wanted to avoid the comeuppence he got, he could have surrendered anytime to US athorities in the last ten years."
It was the decision of our Christian President to send his SEALS to murder Mr. Bin Laden.

"Richard, there was always the possibility he might have had a concealed weapon on him."
Soldiers and Marines serving in Afghanistan and Iraq have been charged with Homicide under the UCMJ for entering compounds and killing, in cold blood, unarmed Muslim suspects. The 5th Commandment (and the UCMJ)applies even to SEALS in Pakistan.

"Why should our soldiers take any chances of being killed by a concealed suicide bomb or a small concealed mini-sub-gun?"
Then why not just kill every Muslim on sight? Better yet why not stand off a safe distance and nuke em till their eyes glow in the dark?

"keep swallowing camels and straining gnats"
The Church allows under certain circumstances self defense but not preventative violence. Murder, in the end, will always have more harm on the murderer.

God bless

Richard W Comerford
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written by Nick, May 16, 2011
The problem with the analogies is that the author is asking the wrong question. There is a difference between what is allowed under international law and what is morally correct. Both Beckwith and Wright should know this and avoid the senseless hypothesizing about what if this that or the other thing. Governments have the right of self-defense and a right to extradite or kidnap an individual to bring that person to justice. The operation must be limited in time and effects and all the contrived scenarios along with the real event seem to meet minimum requirements of international law.

What is missing is a discussion of intent. It is here where things are not clear, as the President did not explicitly state the exact orders given to the team. Although, I understand the order went something like, “Kill or capture.” This is the crux of the moral issue. If the intent was to capture to bring to justice and if that were not possible then kill I would say the US is morally justified in the events assuming the team on the ground operated in a reasonable fashion given the situation at the time. Only God and perhaps the members immediately involved in the shooting know for sure if their actions were truly justified. I cannot judge and rely on the training, reputation, and professionalism of those directly involved. I assume that they properly carried out their orders.

I worry more about the attitude and statements of our national leadership. There appears to be no standard story as to exactly what was ordered how the mission unfolded. The joy and smiles appeared too broad and congratulatory to indicate to me that anyone wanted Bin Laden captured. So, we go back to the intent. I hope the intent was to capture and kill only if necessary. However, who can say except for the principals involved. Only God and they, perhaps, know for sure.

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