The killing of Osama Bin Laden: Revenge or Justice?


By: Robert E. Meyer

In light of the jubilant celebrations all over America, spawned by the announcement that Osama Bin Laden had been killed by Navy Seals, we have to assess the appropriateness of our reactions. It is certainly hard to deny that the carnival atmosphere following the announcement was anything short of the jubilation like that of the Munchkins after certifying the death of the Wicked Witch of the East.

The killing of Bin Laden means a variety of things to different people. For those who lost a loved one in the terrorist attacks on 9-11, or in the war theaters in the middle east, perhaps it represents closure of some sort. For others it may be a relief that an icon of terrorism has finally been vanquished. Some will say that what goes around, comes around, and Bin Laden’s demise is confirmation of that axiom. Finally, there is a group insisting that we were cowardly attacked on 9-11, and the killing of bin Laden was a watershed act of revenge. I suppose there are all sorts of shades of sentimentality that fall in between those characterizations.

For my own part, there was a sense of silent satisfaction, but little desire to celebrate. My temperance is hardly a function of standing on a higher moral plane, or exuding a greater civility than those who were more vocal and demonstrative in their celebrating. The biggest difference is that for me the death of Bin Laden is somewhat anti-climatic. Were Bin Laden found seven or eight years ago, it might have been a different story. Then too, some people might assume that because I do not support the president’s policies, I will not be enthusiastic toward anything that helps his sagging poll numbers.

I am not one of those “Holier than thou” contrarians who are trying to make people feel ashamed for their celebratory spirit. While calling on people to reflect on the appropriateness of their reactions is a worthy endeavor, it has become such an overworked exercise, that it is hard to believe all such requests are genuinely thoughtful dissent, and not an effort to garner publicity. Anti-celebratory dissent has become so common that it is the neo-conformist position.

Often, the Christian community, both from within and without, is admonished with the WWJD(what would Jesus do)standard. While this is appropriate for programming individual ethics, it is an absurd benchmark for adjudicating the activities of the state. This is because the state and the individual have different mandates. In the Bible, at the end of Romans chapter 12, we are told not to seek vengeance against those who have wronged us, because final judgment belongs to God. However, we are not left hanging, waiting for the day of reckoning for the enactment of temporal, remedial justice. For that reason, in the beginning of Romans 13, God has delegated derivative authority to the “higher powers,” namely the state.

1 Let every soul be subject unto the higher powers. For there is no power but of God: the powers that be are ordained of God.
2 Whosoever therefore resisteth the power, resisteth the ordinance of God: and they that resist shall receive to themselves damnation.
3 For rulers are not a terror to good works, but to the evil. Wilt thou then not be afraid of the power? do that which is good, and thou shalt have praise of the same:
4 For he is the minister of God to thee for good. But if thou do that which is evil, be afraid; for he beareth not the sword in vain: for he is the minister of God, a revenger to execute wrath upon him that doeth evil.

Notice that in verse four, the state is given the power of the sword to avenge wrath upon the evil doer. Most orthodox Christian theologians believe this gives the state coercive powers to punish unto death, where appropriate. Few of us would dispute that Bin Laden falls into the most despicable category, whether considered a criminal or an illegal combatant who declared war on America. While it might be a more nuanced exercise of legality to ultimately determine if the U.S. had proper jurisdiction in Pakistan, or whether Bin Laden might have been captured rather than killed, I think it difficult to condemn the state for killing Bin Laden on theological grounds, unless such accusation is leveled from the position of a truncated or obtuse religious polemic. An example might be an assertion such as “Who would Jesus kill?” Another might be something like “Jesus said we should love our enemies.” Both are inappropriate uses of scriptural concepts because they ignore the jurisdictional distinction between the individual and the state, or as Justice Antonin Scalia once observed about capital punishment, that there is a confusion between private and public justice.

As it pertains to Christians, there has been considerable intramural criticism of the reactions to Bin Laden’s death, but it is the reaction that comes from outside the Christian community that is the more specious. The militant secularist habitually scoffs at the “Christian Nation” assumption when disputing First Amendment religious issues, yet presumes it true when condemning a “Christian Nation” for celebrating the demise of Bin Laden. The first error is to assume that it is primarily committed Christians who were dancing in the streets upon hearing the news that Bin Laden had assumed room temperature. A second false assumption is that the relief over the vanquishing of an evil mastermind is wholly unbiblical in nature, and consequently, a hypocritical response. There is no lack of evidence in the scriptures for celebrations at the demise of evil or an evil person. Yet as a sincere Christian, one must be regretful for any loss life, particularly when the subject is believed to have died unrepentant. It leads to conflicting responses.

While one might be tempted to conclude that the killing of Bin Laden is an act of revenge that begets more violence, I’m inclined to conclude it was a legitimate act of state justice(though I would consider opposing arguments). One must not confuse the service of justice with the process or method by which it is carried out.

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