I admit it: when I woke up this morning to the headline “Osama Bin Laden Killed“, I reacted with surprise (about the manhunt still being actively pursued) and jubilation, as well as admiration at the execution of the operation by US intelligence and the US military.
But is it morally permissible to celebrate somebody’s death?
- Let’s first get religion out of the way because I don’t believe in any: Some religious people say that only god and not man may take lives. Other religious people say that god is omnipotent, so that we must assume that men who kill are controlled by him. After all, he can’t kill everyone by lightning. So, as always, religion gives no clear guidance at all.
- Law is no guidance either because
- it is similar to religion in its contentiousness,
- most people who will immediately tell you that “the killing of Osama Bin Laden was clearly illegal” won’t even be able to tell you which domestic or international law applies,
- law mainly deals with the act of the killing, not with the subsequent death, and
- we don’t know the circumstances of the death. We don’t know if it was a targeted killing or Mr Bin Laden died while trying to resist arrest or in a fire fight. Without knowing the facts, nobody can apply the law to them. (Although I would argue that it was most likely not a targeted killing because that could have been carried out with much less risk by a drone strike or a bombing raid.)
- This leads to an important distinction: the one between the killing and the death. Although one results in the other, we can separate them. This becomes apparent if you imagine the case of Mr Bin Laden dying from measles or from old age. Our reactions and evaluation might be quite different.
- Any premature death means a life cut short. Most deaths will result in sorrow for family members and friends, or in this case followers. Children have lost their father today.
- What if the death of one person saves other lives? This is uncertain, because although Mr Bin Laden has admitted (in his taped messages) the responsibility for the murder of thousands, we don’t know if he has still been actively involved in terrorism. As to Mr Bin Laden inspiring radicalism, his death might not bring this to an end. But the moral problem remains, because the burden of saving other people’s lives cannot be put on one person against that person’s will.
- And on this subject, the deceased’s will, it is that we have to return to the circumstances leading to his death: It was Mr Bin Laden himself, a confessed mass-murderer who not only prompted the 10-year long manhunt for him, but who chose to live a life of battle, conflict and war. This choice doesn’t necessarily ask for death, but it increases the chances of it dramatically. One could even argue that by resisting arrest, Mr Bin Laden in effect committed suicide through the hands of the US military, something which would be in line with his rants about martyrdom.
Every lost life – even that of the most heinous criminal – brings sorrow over people who have not deserved it. The death of no one warrants the public jubilation that we have seen being sparked by news of Mr Bin Laden’s death. But there are cases where I can understand – and even share – a certain sense of happiness and satisfaction. This case is one of them.