Justice, Vengeance, Terror, Execution

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.

7 thoughts on “Justice, Vengeance, Terror, Execution

  1. Thank you. One of the first things I thought is that I wish he could have stood trial. . I too thought about what scripture says in light of it all.

  2. Although I am inclined to agree with you on most points, I think that you make a unsubstantiated claim. From what I heard Obama say, the team was tasked to capture bin Laden if possible. He died in a fire fight when his compound was attached. You may wish to scream from the highest heaven that he was executed, but you have no proof at this time that this claim is true. Period. Full stop.

    For you to claim otherwise without the evidence betrays your own prejudice in the matter.

  3. I, too, would have preferred to see bin Laden brought to trial. I’d like to think that he would have been taken alive, if possible… there have been conflicting reports on the events, but it seems likely that bin Laden was unarmed but resisting, and possibly going for weapons. The Navy Seals are an elite, highly-trained team of professionals; I don’t believe that they would have killed him unless they felt it was necessary. I could be wrong, but anything else goes against deeply-ingrained training and beliefs.

    I can’t say for certain what people celebrate when they run through the streets; I’m sure it means different things to different people. For many it is, as you say, a satisfaction of vengeance. But for many it is simply relief that they no longer have to worry about this man’s evils… you point out correctly that he was only one of many, and that others will replace him; however, like Hitler, it will be a long time before we see his equal in terms of purely-evil, monstrous capabilities.

    For many of us, forgiveness, patience, and peace are things we practice, with varying degrees of success, on a daily basis. In an extreme case like bin Laden, they are simply beyond us. Fortunately, Christians are taught that they are still loved and accepted, even with faults.

    I would actually go so far as to assert that forgiveness is neither required nor appropriate here, however… I always understood that the first requirement of forgiveness is that the person who has wronged you must acknowledge that he was wrong (and, arguably, commit to changing his behavior). Bin Laden never felt that he was wrong, and certainly never asked for forgiveness. Maybe the bible says differently, but it certainly seems like a crucial part of forgiveness.

    For myself, there is no anger, no hatred, no desire for vengeance. It was simply that the man needed to be stopped. I do not celebrate his death, or even say it was deserved. But there are consequences for every choice we make; bin Laden chose a path of violence, evil, and hatred, and in the face of inability to bring him to trial, his death was necessary. Even the Dalai Lama said about his death: “If something is serious and it is necessary to take counter-measures, you have to take counter-measures.”

    Pretty severe statement from a man who doesn’t like to kill mosquitos…

  4. Thank you, AKMA, for articulating so much of what I have been thinking all week. I would add one more – non-Biblical – quotation, which bounced into my head at unspeakable o’clock on Monday morning as my insomnia and I listened to President Obama’s statement. Mahatma Gandhi once said:

    “An eye for an eye and we shall all be blind”

    For me that encompasses all my worries about triumphalism, due process of law, the potential martyr status of Bin Laden etc etc. Maybe the good, albeit hard way, would have been for the US to choose a different path, to waive the right to vengeance and break the cycle of violence.

  5. Glad you posted on this – as the recent events developed, I wondered what you might make of it. Pleased to find no beer-guzzling flag waiving going on here.

    It seems to me what we are losing sight of (as a nation) is how much the cresting catastrophe of the past decade is owed not univocally to OBL, but in great measure to our response to it. That response was overweening, hubristic, careless and far more wasteful and destructive than any considered response to any kind of threat needs to be. We were guided by fools – vengeful, crowd-pleasing borderline dunces who were in the grip of a large anonymous capital formation that requires war and insecurity to feed on.

    OBL may have “inaugurated,” but US values, ignorance and solipsism exacerbated the effects of terror and distorted statesmanlike intelligence into something plug-ugly.

    Unfortunately the surgical removal of OBL might be a necessary pre-condition to any return to orderly thought, even as it provokes incalculable resentment in ways we won’t soon see.

  6. I dont mind that they shot him. What slightly disgusts me, however, is the amount of crazy celebration… “relief that they no longer have to worry about this man’s evils” is certainly true for most, but there are also many who expressed true hatred towards that man. Fair enough, i dont judge them, but those people do scare me…

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