Legitimate kill

  • May 3, 2011

He was the face of evil, an indiscriminate murderer, a terrorist whose tentacles reached across nations to snare others into an ideology of hate.

Now Osama bin Laden is dead and Christians are called to sober reflection, not celebration.

The announcement that bin Laden had been shot dead in his Pakistan mansion by U.S. Navy Seals sparked rejoicing around much of the Western world. It had taken almost 10 years to sniff him out after the 9/11 attacks that claimed more than 3,000 lives, including 24 Canadians. The search was long but retribution was swift — a bullet to the head and a hasty burial at sea.

In the days after bin Laden’s mercenaries brought down the World Trade Centre in 2001, then U.S. president George W. Bush declared that America would have its justice. Asked if he wanted bin Laden dead, Bush made a quip about the bad guys in old-west posters: “Wanted: Dead or Alive.” But there was never a sense bin Laden would be taken alive and face trial.

Vengeance and any acts of hatred are, of course, contrary to Church teaching. Christ preached that we should turn the other cheek and we must love our enemies.

So in light of those teachings how are Christians to react to bin Laden’s execution?

The Vatican issued a statement that cautioned against celebration. It said Christians should never rejoice at a man’s death, even a mass murderer like bin Laden, but should instead regard such events as opportunities to sow peace, not hatred.

This would even apply to a terrorist like bin Laden who was responsible for “manipulating religion” and “causing the deaths of innumerable people.”

But the Vatican did not condemn killing bin Laden. Church teaching accepts taking a life as a last resort in cases of legitimate defence. The most common of these is self defence, but legitimate defence can also apply to killing someone to save another’s life or, in matters of the state, to protect society from an aggressor. The Catechism says such killings are not only within Church teaching but in extreme cases they can become a “grave duty” of the state.

Bin Laden was committed to a life of terrorism. He lived to kill so had to die. Arresting him likely would have sparked bombings and kidnappings, more innocent deaths, at the hands of terrorists intent on engineering their leader’s release.

That’s not to suggest bin Laden’s death will end terrorism, but the terrorist cause is diminished by his passing.  And while morally unacceptable to rejoice at his death, it is fitting to commend a just application of the principle of legitimate defence.

It’s not a question of whether he got what he deserved. He got what was required to safeguard the common good.

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