Other people will have said more than enough about the US’s execution of Osama bin Laden. Amid all the exultation and deprecation, there are a number of points we ought to bear in mind.
First, bin Laden’s attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon have successfully pushed once-open Western democracies into a state of security panic. The aftermath of the horrible devastation in Manhattan endures with every body scan, CCTV surveillance camera, unauthorised interception of telephonic or digital communication, and every political intervention aimed at heightening public anxiety for partisan advantage. “Be very afraid, so vote for the toughest-talking rich (mostly), white (mostly) (that’s “white, mostly” not “mostly white”), male (mostly) candidate”. Bin Laden’s terrorist attacks inaugurated a chain of events that has led to the loss of hundreds of thousands of lives — Iraqi, Afghan, American, British, and dozens from other nations. The thousands murdered at the World Trade Center, the hundreds murdered in the Madrid train bombings, the dozens murdered on 7/7 in London, and the incalculable casualties of the subsequent wars. Terrorists did not force Western governments to retaliate with military force, but tough-guy posturing perpetuated and amplified the after-effects of the criminal terrorist acts. The scale of bin Laden’s enduring effects will be impossible soundly to estimate for decades.
Second, however brutally cold-blooded bin Laden’s tactics were, the principle of due process has been integral to Western claims to political integrity for more than two hundred years. Summary execution of an accused — even a publicly-acknowledged — criminal does nothing to support the claims that liberal democracy offers a fundamentally different, fundamentally superior way of national government. Jubilant mobs and jingoistic chants don’t burnish the public stature of any nations, either.
Third, there have always been terrorists and criminals; bin Laden and al-Qaeda are not sui generis phenomena, but examples of a recurrent response to particular sorts of economic and political conditions. Assassinating bin Laden doesn’t change those conditions; it attacks the symptoms, not the sickness.
Fourth, even the most firmly convinced just-war Christian has no business expressing anything other than penitent relief at this turn of events. The litany of biblical texts and theological principles that speak against revenge, warfare, and unilateralism should not need repeating, but the atmosphere of exceptionalism and self-justification that suffuses the aftermath of the NYC terror attacks probably requires that belligerent avengers revisit some pertinent texts.
“You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth’. But I say to you, Do not resist an evildoer. But if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also… I say to you, love your enemies” — Matthew 5:38-39, 44
“Do not rejoice when your enemies fall, and do not let your heart be glad when they stumble” — Proverbs 24:17
“As I live, says the Lord God, I have no pleasure in the death of the wicked, but that the wicked turn from their ways and live” — Ezekiel 33:11
“For if you forgive others their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you; but if you do not forgive others, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses” — Matthew 6:14-15
“Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave room for the wrath of God; for it is written, ‘Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord’.” — Romans 12:19, alluding to Deuteronomy 32:35, 41 — “Vengeance is mine, and recompense, for the time when their foot shall slip”, “I will take vengeance on my adversaries, and will repay those who hate me.”
I have no sympathy for terrorists and mass murderers. But their horrible crimes do not override obligations to observe international law, and still less do they release Christians from their commitments to follow in a way of patience, forgiveness, peaceableness, and non-violence — on 9/11, 7/7, or today.