Analogies and the Death of Bin Laden

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

Francis J. Beckwith is Professor of Philosophy & Church-State Studies, Baylor University, and 2016-17 Visiting Professor of Conservative Thought and Policy at the University of Colorado, Boulder. Among his many books is Taking Rites Seriously: Law, Politics, and the Reasonableness of Faith (Cambridge University Press, 2015).