Saturday, May 14, 2011

The Death of Osama bin Laden

‘As surely as I live, declares the Sovereign LORD, I take no pleasure in the death of the wicked, but rather that they turn from their ways and live. Turn! Turn from your evil ways! Why will you die, people of Israel?’
Ezekiel 33:11, NIV

I've been meaning to write this post ever since I heard about bin Laden's death, but it's been a very busy couple of weeks. It raises all kind of questions, but I'm going to think about three of them. Was what happened just? Was it right? And should Americans have rejoiced the way they did?

First, was it just?

Osama bin Laden had personally declared war on the US. He claimed responsibility for and delighted in the events of 9/11, and clearly intended to continue to do such acts whenever he was able to do so. Had the USA captured him and put him on trial in any court in the world (except possibly those operating under Sharia Law), he would have been found guilty, and in any court that allowed the death penalty, he would have been sentenced to death. There was no possibility of reasonable doubt about his guilt, or about the seriousness of his actions. The killing of Osama bin Laden was, without a doubt, just.

But was it right?

That is a harder question. Was it right for the US to send a team of heavily armed Navy Seals into Pakistan without permission and to assassinate an unarmed man? Again, perspective helps here. The US is at war in Afghanistan, a war which had as one of its major aims to kill or capture Osama bin Laden. The war spills over the border into Pakistan, and Pakistan is officially on America's side in that war.

For the US, acting without Pakistan's permission was a necessary part of the operation. If they had asked for permission, they would have put the Pakistani government in a difficult position. Either they grant permission, in which case they get even more protests from their own population, or they refuse it and lose all US support. Far better for the Pakistani government not to have to make the choice at all. Furthermore, had the US told Pakistan of its intentions, the Pakistani authorities are sufficiently compromised by links to Al Qua'eda that it is highly likely that bin Laden would have been notified and enabled to escape. In addition, if any country (except Russia or China) had been knowingly harbouring bin Laden, it is likely that the US would have if necessary declared war on them to get at him. Much better for them, and much better for the host country, not to have to bother.

Was it right to kill bin Laden given that he was unarmed? I have already pointed out that he would have been sentenced to death anyway, so the only issue is the manner of his death. If one is in battle, and a sniper has the opportunity to shoot the enemy commander, they do not worry too much whether or not he is armed at the time. Even if it was not in battle, if in WW2 a German tank column was moving through Europe, and a British sniper caught sight of the German General Rommel and shot him, even if he was not even carriyng a gun at the time, that would be regarded as perfectly legitimate. And bin Laden clearly thought he was at war with the US. I don't see what the moral difference is.

In addition, there are problems associated with keeping bin Laden in prison. It would provide an incredibly high-profile target for protests and suicide bombings, and it could be argued it was far better tactically to kill him and bury him at sea. Having said all that, I think if it would have been possible to capture and put bin Laden on trial, that may have been even better.

I don't mean better from the point of view of justice at all - I mean from the point of view of what bin Laden seemed to understand so little about - mercy. Of course he didn't deserve it - if he had deserved it, it wouldn't have been mercy. To allow him the possibility of repentance would have been a very merciful thing. Of course, to allow him the possibility to give a memorable speech inciting the Muslim world to unity and hatred of the West would have been a very dangerous thing, so it would have had to be handled carefully.

And so we come onto the question about whether it was right to rejoice. I think relatives of those killed in 9/11 could have rejoiced. But ultimately God does not rejoice in the death of sinners, but rather that they turn from their wickedness and live. If bin Laden had turned around and become a force for peace in the world, even a living demonstration of the power of God to change sinners, that would have been cause for rejoicing. As it is, it seems that he is just one more unrepentant sinner going to Hell. That isn't something to rejoice in, especially when we recognise that it is what we deserve too - it is where we would be but for the grace and mercy that God has shown us.

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