On rejoicing at the death of an enemy

Yes, it’s possible to hate the sin and love the sinner, and their should be decency even in rejoicing. But if we’re not glad that bin Laden is dead, why ask the SEALs to risk their lives to kill him?

If you really think this was murder, of course you should say so. But it’s flat-out unpatriotic to maunder about “extra-judicial killing” just because you hate Barack Obama and don’t want him to get credit for an accomplishment.

Megan McArdle finds useful thoughts from C.S. Lewis, George Orwell, and an anonymous poet writing from inside Ravensbruck.

One point that sometimes gets lost in the purely moral discussion. Rejoicing at bin Laden’s death is, in part, an “attaboy” to the SEALs and others who risked their lives to make this happen. If we want people to keep risking their lives to make such things happen, a good purpose is served by having them know that their work is valued. The alleged conservatives whose hatred of the Barack Osama Obama leads them to put out a bunch of loose talk about “extra-judicial killing” (which is an open euphemism for murder; the linked piece actually calls it a “hit job,” as if the SEALs were no better than Mafia gunmen) are acting about as unpatriotically as it’s possible to act. [UPDATE: To clarify a misunderstanding that came up in comments, I’m referring here to Powerline and IowaHawk here, not to Megan; her post seemed to me entirely admirable, and my intention was to extend the conversation, not to disagree with what she said.]

Now, if you think that killing bin Laden was wrong, and are sorry it happened, and want to ensure that similar killings don’t happen in the future, by all means you should say so. Support for “the troops” doesn’t mean approving of war crimes, and if you think this was a war crime it’s not at all unpatriotic for you to speak out: indeed, you have a duty to do so. That was, and is, my stance on torture.

But to criticize just because you want to take the shine off a major accomplishment by a President you hate is pretty low-down.

Author: Mark Kleiman

Professor of Public Policy at the NYU Marron Institute for Urban Management and editor of the Journal of Drug Policy Analysis. Teaches about the methods of policy analysis about drug abuse control and crime control policy, working out the implications of two principles: that swift and certain sanctions don't have to be severe to be effective, and that well-designed threats usually don't have to be carried out. Books: Drugs and Drug Policy: What Everyone Needs to Know (with Jonathan Caulkins and Angela Hawken) When Brute Force Fails: How to Have Less Crime and Less Punishment (Princeton, 2009; named one of the "books of the year" by The Economist Against Excess: Drug Policy for Results (Basic, 1993) Marijuana: Costs of Abuse, Costs of Control (Greenwood, 1989) UCLA Homepage Curriculum Vitae Contact: Markarkleiman-at-gmail.com

33 thoughts on “On rejoicing at the death of an enemy”

  1. Here is a moral question that was posed to me the other day: Is it contradictory to approve of the intentional, targeted killing of bin Laden and yet be morally opposed to capital punishment?

    Are the two referring to the same issue, but differing by a(n extreme) matter of degree? Or can one reconcile the two beliefs?

    I figured the crowd at RBC would have an opinion.

  2. Tom, see the end of the Althouse thread. I prefer to think of bin Laden as an enemy and the SEAL operation as an attack on a legitimate military target, especially since he was still activity running al-Qaeda. A better reference for your question might be the revenge killings after Munich. Since I’m not morally opposed to capital punishment, I’m not the best person to answer the larger question.

  3. My answer, Tom, is that the moral implications of assassinating bin Laden are basically irrelevant to me. I simply would not be able to bear watching TV’s big swinging dicks fantasize about being alone in a cell with a captured bin Laden. Which is to say, it’s an ugly world and I’ve got to keep my food down.

  4. (Kleiman): “…to criticize just because you want to take the shine off a major accomplishment by a President you hate is pretty low-down.
    100% agreement, in abstract. In detail, only so-so:
    1) How is this a “major accomplishment” of the Obama administration? Did the current administration do any more than continue the policy of the previous administration? By analogy, did Nixon get credit for the moon landing?
    2) As I asked earlier, how can anyone who condemns the previous administration for approving rough interrogation celebrate the execution of an unarmed man? I’m not complaining. Osama’s death by SEAL is the best news of the year. I have no problem with the operation. I wonder why you’all don’t, if you objected to rough interrogation. The Obama administration has used drone attackes against individuals in Pakistan and elsewhere. Is waterboarding worse than death by rifle bullet or Hellfire missile?

  5. (1) Nixon took all he could get. (2) In the law, it absolutely is. In every civilized country it is. Has been for centuries. I’d call this sort of argument Autistofascism, but that insults people with a serious mental health condition.

    When I hear credible evidence, even a scintilla, that bin Laden was trying to surrender, I’ll start to worry about his death.

  6. Mark, a week ago you chose to characterize this assassination, with explicit approval, as “revenge”. Now I sense you are walking that back. You were just trying to pat the Seals on the back, so they would know their work is valued. (As if you would have had the slightest bit of trouble separating those ideas if you chose.) And now it is a strictly military killing, based on what he was likely to do in the future, not what he did in the past; factually, that is a dubious proposition. Please be clear: do you endorse revenge assassination or don’t you? If you do, please share your thoughts on the risk that this will make life more dangerous for our leaders, some of whom have been poor at following of international law and respecting innocent human life and other human rights.

  7. “Did the current administration do any more than continue the policy of the previous administration?”

    Yes.

    “[H]ow can anyone who condemns the previous administration for approving rough interrogation celebrate the execution of an unarmed man?”

    By not eliding the differences between (1) the custodial torture of a person in restraints and (1) the killing of a mass murderer at large in a military operation.

  8. McMegan is hardly the best example of a hyper-partisan “the duty of an opposition is to oppose” hack. Let’s remember that she voted for Obama. If she says she has mixed feelings about this, I’m inclined to take her at her word and not look for an ulterior motive.

    I do agree with you though that:
    a) some on the right have been very petty and nitpicky about this (eg, counting the first person pronouns in the president’s announcement)
    b) it’s probably not honorable nor prudential to conflate our special forces in with sicarios

  9. (Church): “Here is a moral question that was posed to me the other day: Is it contradictory to approve of the intentional, targeted killing of bin Laden and yet be morally opposed to capital punishment? Are the two referring to the same issue, but differing by a(n extreme) matter of degree? Or can one reconcile the two beliefs?
    The world entered a new era when the World Trade Center towers fell. In peacetime State agents act under a presumption of innocence. In wartime State agents may act under a presumption of guilt. That is, if a policeman on the scene of a botched bank robbery/hostage taking sees a man with an extended black object in hand running toward a position occupied by his fellow officers, shoots, and kills a stockbroker with an umbrella, that cop will get placed on desk duty while the department investigates his actions. If a soldier in a battle sees a man in the uniform of the enemy running toward a position occupied by the soldier’s companions, no disciplinary action follows the soldier’s killing, armed or not. If in battle against non-uniformed combatants a soldier sees a man (not a fellow soldier) with an extended object in hand running toward a position occupied by fellow soldiers, shoots and kills a peasant with a hoe, well, “nice one shot kill, son”.
    In a borderless conflict with non-State actors the distinction between “war” and “peace” loses definition.
    “Presumption” (of innocence or guilt) is a continuous variable. Ethics and the law have yet to adapt to the new reality.

  10. (Malcolm): “Did the current administration do any more than continue the policy of the previous administration?
    (Drake): “Yes.
    Please expand. What more did the Obama administration do?
    (Malcolm): “How can anyone who condemns the previous administration for approving rough interrogation celebrate the execution of an unarmed man?
    (Drake): “By not eliding the differences between (1) the custodial torture of a person in restraints and (1)the killing of a mass murderer at large in a military operation.
    Please explain how the differences make a difference. Both are means to an end. The end is the same, yes? Khalid Sheikh Mohammed was as much a mass murderer as Bin Ladin. If killing is more brutal than waterboarding, how is the President who ordered killing morally superior to the President who ordered (or, tolerated) waterboarding?

  11. Please expand. What more did the Obama administration do?

    Could you please just Google it and stop with the pretend ignorance?

  12. Malcolm Kirkpatrick writes, “Please explain how the differences make a difference. Both are means to an end. The end is the same, yes? Khalid Sheikh Mohammed was as much a mass murderer as Bin Ladin. If killing is more brutal than waterboarding, how is the President who ordered killing morally superior to the President who ordered (or, tolerated) waterboarding?”

    “More effective” would perhaps be a better term than “morally superior.” Information gained under torture is usually unreliable, so the process is not only cruel, but usually ineffective as well. There is conflicting information about whether or not torture played a role in finding bin Laden. I don’t have enough information to make a decision about that, and I don’t know which side to believe. Killing a terrorist leader who is actively planning further attacks on the US was clearly effective, particularly as the raid not only killed bin Laden, but hauled in a vast amount of intelligence that will keep us all safer.

    From a moral perspective, you pose an interesting question. There’s something repugnant about torturing a prisoner, who is vulnerable and, by virtue of his imprisonment, has been rendered harmless and no longer poses a threat. Bin Laden certainly posed a continuing and active threat. I was more concerned about the deaths of the other four people killed in the raid, just as I was about Saddam Hussein’s 14yo grandson, who was killed during the same raid that killed Saddam’s sons.

  13. To be clear, I intended no criticism of my friend Megan; her post was clear enough. I merely wanted to add a dimension other than the personal/moral to the discussion. It was the clowns at Powerline and IowaHawk who were the objects of my scorn.

    Malcolm, I refuse to believe that you don’t understand the difference between morally justifiable warfare and the infliction of torture, a crime not merely against humanity but against the laws of the United States of America.

    Ken, I’m not walking anything back. I have consistently said that our satisfaction in having the SoB dead reflects justified revenge, not justice. (That’s the sense in which bin Laden is a parallel case to Bosch or the Munich perpetrators.)

    But in addition to the satisfaction we feel in having the slaughterer slaughtered, there was the strictly military fact that Osama bin Laden was the active commander of an entity that has been waging war on the United States for a very long time now, and we not only took him out but scooped up a bunch of hard drives from his den. The action was justified, both legally and operationally, by that strictly military value.

    I’m not saying that a revenge operation couldn’t ever be justified, even outside the confines of law; if the Israelis had killed Eichmann, as they killed the Munich killers, rather than bringing him back for trial, would that have been wrong? But I don’t think we have to get to that analysis. The U.S. hit a legitimate military target, took gunfire, and killed the commander. Not at all a morally dubious operation, unless you’re a pacifist.

  14. I commend your willingness to confront hypotheticals, which I think are necessary here; we can’t let assassination be an entirely ad hoc matter. Suppose, President Kleiman, that the best available intelligence indicated that Osama bin Laden had abandoned all military and political activity. Would you still have assassinated him? If you had a different target, whose future intentions and capabilities matched the worst plausible construction of bin Laden’s at the time of his death, but who had never acted against the United States, would you have assassinated her? And am I correct in inferring that you have no concern that legitimizing assassination as a tactic could have adverse consequences over time for persons and causes you support?

  15. Ken, if bin Laden had been fully retired, then the action would have had to be justified as revenge, not warfare. Is such revenge sometimes justified? In Eichmann’s case, I think I would have said yes; in Bosch’s case, I think I would say yes. But you’re entitled to a different view, or to think that what is permissible in a non-state actor or lesser power is not acceptable from the superpower.

    Had he never actually taken action, then he would not have been either an enemy or a criminal. And then it would have been impossible to know that such a person was a threat in the same sense that someone who had already struck once was a threat.

    Had your hypothetical Shin Laden he been in the course of taking his first action, then self-defense would apply, if it were possible to know about the impending action.

    But how does any of this apply to someone who had already struck and was planning to strike again?
    If your point is merely that you’re clever enough to make the simple seem confusing, you’ve proven it.

    Since the killing of bin Laden was not, in my view, anything like an assassination, I have no concern about it as a precedent.

  16. Anyone who did not spend 2003-2009 in vociferous protests against the Bush/Cheney administration’s use of torture and approval of extrajudicial killings seems to me to be playing a weak hand here. just sayin’.

  17. “Please expand.”

    What calling all toasters said. If you need keyword help, try [obama “bin laden” “top priority”]. Cf. searches on [Bush “bin laden” “I truly am not that concerned about him”].

    “Please explain how the differences [between (1) custodial torture and (2) killing in military combat operations] make a difference.”

    See Louis Armstrong.

  18. Mark: Thank you for acknowledging that I am a entitled to a different view; so are you, and I would urge you to be more explicit in what you do think. I believe that this was an assassination, or at a minimum dangerously close, and that it was in main substance a revenge killing. I do indeed think that it is a dangerous precedent. I think that the “non-state actor” line of thinking serves mainly to excuse ignoring fundamental principles that otherwise might inconveniently bind even an exceptional, better-than-everybody-else superpower, while ignoring the precedential consequences, given that others are unlikely to feel bound by that nicety. Saying, “This case was sui generis, the analysis is over” is not helpful. I agree that splitting out these hypotheticals is mildly complicated, enough so that I would not bother in most venues; it is a tribute to this one that I consider it worth trying. I have my doubts that you really find my reasoning all that confusing; it is bad news if you do.

  19. Ken,this really doesn’t seem hard to me.

    1. We wanted the SoB dead because he’d murdered 3000 of us.
    2. That was a crime, and he could have been arrested and tried for it.
    3. It was also an (unlawful) act of war, and part of a larger military campaign against the United States, which made him an enemy as well as a criminal.
    4. The action in Pakistan was fully justified as a military strike against an enemy target. The fact that we also wanted him dead as a matter of revenge doesn’t change that.
    5. Killing in warfare is not assassination. If he’d tried to surrender, we would have been obliged to accept that surrender, but (unlike the law-enforcement case) there’s no obligation to yell “Come out with your hands up!”

  20. “Killing in warfare is not assassination.” Indeed, which is precisely why the Bush administration insisted that September 11th was not crime, but war. The answer to crime is law. The answer to war is to kill more or less anyone who can be labeled as “the enemy.” Obviously the latter has its political uses.

    Raise your hand if you think Obama will suggest a return to the rule of law, now that bin Laden is dead.

  21. Malcolm,

    “How can anyone who condemns the previous administration for approving rough interrogation celebrate the execution of an unarmed man?”

    1. The purposes are different. No will admit that the torture (not “rough interrogation”) was intended as revenge or punishment or an act of defense, as the killing of Bin Laden was, dependingon your POV. The alleged purpose of the torture was to gain information.

    2. The torture victims were in custody. If Osama had been in custody I doubt anyone would have thought it a good idea to walk ibto his cell and kill him.

    3. There was no certainty that the torture victims were actually guilty of anything. Many were not.

    4. If you are confident that the prisoner is an al-Qaeda member, and may have useful information, torture is known not to be a particularly effective method of interrogation. This is much more than an argument from practicality. It means that in many cases the torturer is in fact inflicting illegal and brutal punishment on his victims, and not really trying to get information at all.

  22. Mark, I would summarize your position as follows: “We are proud of our righteous revenge killing of the evil one. But we aren’t revenge killers or assassins, and nobody else can claim this as a precedent, because our actual reason was different and defensible.” Actually, the argument for hunting him down and shooting him as a criminal is weak; the argument for hunting him down and shooting him down as an active military leader is weak; and the whole “non-state actor” razzmatazz, here and in the torture context, is largely a technique to paper over that “problem” and justify what cannot otherwise be justified.

  23. (Mark): “…I refuse to believe that you don’t understand the difference between morally justifiable warfare and the infliction of torture, a crime not merely against humanity but against the laws of the United States of America.
    If it’s so obvious, please explain.
    Morality is a product of biological and cultural evolution. If harm reduction is the goal and if torture extracts useful information which saves civilian or friendly lives (your soldiers), how is torture wrong?
    Normally empathetic people would not want to do it, but normally empathetic people don’t, at first, find it easy even to shoot enemy soldiers. Normally empathetic people would have found the practice of surgery or dentistry difficult before the invention of anesthesia. I will stipulate that any use of torture sets a bad precedent and that it damages the tortured, the torturer, the command that tolerates it, and the society that tolerates it. Still, losses must be weighed against gains. If we do not get this information, more innocent people will be incinerated, beheaded, maimed by suicide bombers, etc. Do you imagine that the 3000 WTC victims died painlessly? Did Nick Berg? The Bali victims?

  24. (Mark): “ If he’d tried to surrender, we would have been obliged to accept that surrender…
    Is that a statement of your personal preference, or an assertion of law? What law? The Geneva convention does not apply to illegal combatant non-State actors.
    Bin Laden in custody would have been extremely awkward: perpetual hostage-takings around the world, “Free Mumia AND Osama” campaigns, a bully pulpit for Islamic radicals in an American court.

  25. Bin Laden in custody would have been extremely awkward: perpetual hostage-takings around the world, “Free Mumia AND Osama” campaigns, a bully pulpit for Islamic radicals in an American court.

    Not to mention demands that he be tortured, and citizen outrage at any attempt to give him due process.

    I tend to agree that the American criminal justice system has become so degenerate that it can no longer deal with the likes of bin Laden. We probably did have to kill him, but it’s a shame. I hope someday American values make a comeback.

  26. Bin Laden in custody would have been extremely awkward: perpetual hostage-takings around the world, “Free Mumia AND Osama” campaigns, a bully pulpit for Islamic radicals in an American court.

    Omar Abdel-Rahmen, Khalik Sheikh Mohammed? Everyone at Guantanamo? Other issues?

    Your potential hostage-takers have lots of grievances. Would one more send them into a frenzy of hostage-taking?

  27. Rejoicing at bin Laden’s death is, in part, an “attaboy” to the SEALs and others who risked their lives to make this happen. If we want people to keep risking their lives to make such things happen, a good purpose is served by having them know that their work is valued.

    This is bizarre. For one, the US Navy team that took part in that raid are most likely highly self-motivated, have their own criteria of ‘a job well done’, and aren’t looking for any ‘attaboy’. For two, even if they were looking for that, they’d get it just by arresting Bin Laden. For three: no one here is in a position to order units of the US military to go anywhere or do anything. With respect to what we want of them, I doubt it can be said that we want anything more specific than for them to follow their orders effectively within the rule of law, and then to come home safely. If we were to want something more specific, we’d find we couldn’t express it. You may want them to shoot first; others not so much. Who gets listened to?

  28. Can we at least all agree that killing Osama bin Laden exactly as was done in Abbotobad was a more ethical, more appropriate, and more effective response to 9/11 than randomly invading Iraq?

  29. Once the behavior of GW Bush becomes your baseline, you’re pretty much screwed.

  30. The elimination of bin Laden makes it less likely that a buffoon like Donald Trump or a dimbulb like Sarah Bailin’ will be naming ambassadors and appointing a significant portion of the federal judiciary. Republican partisans can’t stand that.

    I have little doubt that, if George W. Doofus had put a fraction of the time, energy and resources that went into capturing Saddam Hussein into taking out bin Laden, our military would have been equal to the task. Bin Laden, however, was more valuable to the Doofus Administration alive and at large than dead or captured. People are more likely to vote Republican when they are scared out of their wits.

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