BBC World Have Your Say on the killing of Osama Bin Laden

On Friday evening I had the pleasure of being invited to contribute to a discussion on the BBC World Service’s “World Have Your Say”. The programme’s format is to begin with a number of contributions on a topical news item from the “great and the good”, and then to open the lines to other contributors who, like me, are neither great, nor in all probability, especially good. Its key advantage over programmes like “Any Answers” on Radio 4 is its international reach. I think I was the only England-based voice on the programme, and thus one tends to get a much wider range of perspective, and fewer people who are merely annoyed, from Surbiton, or both. In order to ensure that the contributors are not all self-selected, the programme’s producers research opinion on the matters at hand from services such as Twitter or Facebook, and the blogosphere generally. It was through my posting here on Osama Bin Laden’s killing by American special forces that I was contacted and invited on to the programme. The focus of the discussion was to be on the morality of the killing, prompted in particular by the controversy surrounding recent comments by Rowan Williams, Archbishop of Canterbury, in which he confessed himself to be “unsettled” by what has now transpired to be the shooting dead of an unarmed man.

The initial hour of the programme heard a range of views from Gregg Easterbrook, an American writer and journalist; Tom Wright, an erstwhile Bishop of Durham; Rabbi Jonathan Romain; and philosopher, A C Grayling. What struck me most forcibly about the views expressed was how little they ventured into what might be termed ethical or moral territory. Although Dr Wright did refer to the important distinction to be drawn between justice and revenge, he did so having firmly identified himself as sympathetic to the American position flowing from the 9/11 atrocity. Gregg Easterbrook was refreshingly honest about what his country had done, and was clear that he believed that killing Osama Bin Laden was the pre-determined purpose of the raid and that there had never been any intention on the Americans’ part to engage in due judicial process. Nevertheless, he was still forthright in his approval of this. One might not be especially surprised about the Rabbi’s general support for the action, given that Israel has never shown itself to be averse to exactly the same tactics. It was left to the atheist Grayling to articulate most clearly the ethical inadequacies of countries resorting to assassination as a means of applying “justice”.

Rather than deal with fundamental principle, the discussion was centred around pragmatic concerns to do with the practical difficulties of bringing Bin Laden to trial; on whether radicalisation was more likely to be provoked by a long and public process than by the speed and finality of a bullet in the head; and on the “exceptional nature” of Bin Laden’s crimes. This last was taken to justify, or at least excuse, the abandonment of due process in favour of something quicker and dirtier.

It seems to me that the key deficiency in the entire debate was a confusion about what is absolute and what is relative. In my view the absolute things are principles of justice and right conduct. The relative things are political and historical perspective. Yet in this exchange, the absolute rightness of the West’s perspective on Islamic radicalism, of the superiority of Western political values and their right to prevail, were effectively taken as read. By contrast, justice was taken to be entirely conditional upon circumstance: if it’s too difficult, or too risky, or the crimes too awful, then justice can be set aside. I fundamentally disagree with this. It takes only the shortest historical perspective to demonstrate how fluid are our interpretations of what is so awful that we need not bother with formal justice, or what is so important that anything is justified in its pursuit. In Britain we learn now that concentration camps and torture were considered entirely justified in putting down the Mau Mau uprising in Kenya only 50 years ago. I doubt we’d see it the same way today.

I was disappointed that the considerations of the contributors were by and large so historically and morally constrained and blinkered. And disappointed too that representatives of faith were no better, indeed worse, than those without faith when it came to discerning the deeper truths behind the political convenience.

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