Monday, May 2, 2011
On yesterday’s military strike that killed Osama bin Laden, I believe that Eduardo and I are in pretty much the same place, at least in terms of general sentiments and our basic support for President Obama’s actions in this particular case. Where we do differ is on context, which I think is especially important here and going forward. Eduardo presents yesterday’s events in the context of law enforcement, describing the killing of bin Laden as a “summary execution” and thus bringing into play the Church’s teaching on capital punishment.
We instead should recognize yesterday’s action as a military operation and thus as subject to moral teaching about what is permissible in the tragedy of war. As President Obama said last night, we did not seek this war. Osama bin Laden openly declared and waged war on the United States. Yesterday the United States won a major victory in that war by destroying the primary leadership of the opposing combatant force. A war against an implacable enemy may be won, and peace restored, only by employing deadly force against the aggressor, soberly and without blood lust, but with resolve and tenacity. When the war is prosecuted effectively, and thus the day is hastened when hostilities will cease, the soldier who serves his country acts honorably. Cf. Catechism para. 2310 (“If [those who serve in the armed forces] carry out their duty honorably, they truly contribute to the common good of the nation and the maintenance of peace.”).
The men of the American special forces team who went into Abbottabad yesterday were not acting as police officers serving an arrest warrant on an ordinary criminal, who would then be held over for trial, prosecuted in a judicial proceeding, and, if convicted, given a criminal sentence, potentially including the death penalty. They were soldiers going into battle and attacking the military headquarters of the enemy. A police officer rightly is expected to reserve the use of deadly force as a last resort, seeking instead to take a criminal suspect into custody. A soldier going into battle prudently enters the fray by firing his weapon at the armed target, with the goal of incapacitating the enemy combatant, which is most effectively accomplished by killing him. The Church teaches that non-combatants, wounded soldiers, and prisoners “must be respected and treated humanely.” Catechism para. 2313. Understandably, the Church does not suggest that soldiers in the heat of battle should not shoot to kill. The teaching on capital punishment has little or no application to the battlefield.
It has been reported by some sources, although contested by others, that the military mission was to kill rather than capture bin Laden. If that should prove to be true, that too should be put in context and not be misunderstood as a license to kill under any circumstances. A military operation with the stated aim of terminating a band of enemy soldiers is a proper military operation, no different than ordering the sinking of an enemy ship or the shooting down of an enemy fighter plane. And it is not the equivalent of a directive to deal death no matter what. Given the professionalism of our armed forces and their history in recent operations of carefully considering the rules of engagement and the law of war, I would be greatly surprised to learn that our soldiers were ordered to shoot to kill even if they encountered an unarmed person waving the white flag of surrender. Likewise, I cannot imagine that the soldiers had been told to administer a coup de grace to any wounded person lying unconscious on the ground. Rather, I expect the mission was focused on eliminating the threat by use of force rather than by taking the unusual step of sending in troops to capture a combatant. Shaping a military strike on an enemy compound with the goal of taking a particular person alive would be tricky, involve much greater risk for American soldiers, and, in a case like this, almost surely would fail.
On the targeting of individual terrorist leaders by military action overseas, which Eduardo opposes in his post, I don't understand the reluctance. I don't see that it makes any sense to tell an American soldier that he may legitimately kill an individual Al Qaeda combatant on the battlefield in Afghanistan, but then must take special protective measures and resist use of deadly force when targeting the commander of the enemy hiding in a secret compound. Military officers, from generals on down to lieutenants, have never been held immune by law or custom on the basis of rank from being targeted during battle. Launching yesterday’s military operation was not the equivalent of conducting a criminal trial and executing the convicted. As the defacto general of Al Qaeda, bin Laden was a legitimate military target.
Ilya Somin, posting on the Volokh Conspiracy, renews his argument that targeting of terrorist leaders is not immoral but may be morally preferable to the alternatives (although I wouldn't describe it as "assassination" but rather a targeted military strike):
In my view, targeting terrorist leaders is not only defensible, but actually more ethical than going after rank and file terrorists or trying to combat terrorism through purely defensive security measures. The rank and file have far less culpability for terrorist attacks than do their leaders, and killing them is less likely to impair terrorist operations. Purely defensive measures, meanwhile, often impose substantial costs on innocent people and may imperil civil liberties. Despite the possibility of collateral damage inflicted on civilians whom the terrorist leaders use as human shields, targeted assassination of terrorist leaders is less likely to harm innocents than most other strategies for combatting terror and more likely to disrupt future terrorist operations.
That does not prove that it should be the only strategy we use, but it does mean that we should reject condemnations of it as somehow immoral.