The more the disjointed and contradictory details of the American military action to kill Osama Bin Laden spill haphazardly into the public domain, the more the issues pile up. What began as a killing of a notorious man by brave US servicemen in “real and present danger” of their own lives, apparently watched live by the President back in Washington, ends up it seems as the cold-blooded killing of an unarmed man and several of his aides who were posing no immediate threat to their assailants.
One could spend a lot of time, as many commentators are indeed doing, sifting through the legal framework; analysing the American-Pakistani political, military and intelligence relationship; scrutinising the manner of the disposal of the body; or wondering about the risks and benefits of publishing the photographs taken of Bin Laden’s bloodied head. These are all important issues, not to be lightly dismissed or glossed over. But they do not lie at the moral heart of the matter.
That central moral question is simply this: does the appalling nature of what Bin Laden planned and arranged to be executed in New York and other places in September 2001, that death toll of over 3,000 innocent lives, release the United States from any obligation to act lawfully or humanely? I do not believe it does.
It doesn’t because Bin Laden was not the only victim of the action at the weekend. It doesn’t because human life is not about arithmetic, with the weight of the 3,000 innocents simply cancelling out the collateral killing of a couple of Bin Laden’s associates. It doesn’t because revenge is not the same thing as justice.
And revenge, it is increasingly clear, is all that this was about. Avenging the deaths of those thousands is a different matter from obtaining justice for them. Indeed, it makes it impossible for them to get justice.
There will be those, and many of them, who will accuse me of bleeding-heart liberalism, of wasting my time being picky, of failing to apply proper perspective. I beg to differ. Justice is indivisible. It is not dependent on totting up the numbers. It does not become a dispensable luxury merely because an indescribably heinous crime has been committed, as indeed it has. Moreover, it is not given to any of us to set ourselves up as the ultimate judges of another man’s soul. That, if you have faith, is something for God to do.