The Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, is very annoying. He says the thing that really ought not to be said, at the moment when nobody wants to hear it; and says it, what is more, with gentle force, causing people to stop in their tracks and reconsider. It is a very unpopular thing to do, especially when people are in the middle of rejoicing, or hating, or some other collective passion.
Yesterday, while people were stil celebrating the extinction of Osama bin Laden, he was asked at a Lambeth Palace press conference whether the US had been right to kill him. After some reluctance to give a response at all -- Archbishop Rowan always knows when he is about to flung into the fire, and yet his honesty always wins out over his fear -- he replied:
"I think the killing of an unarmed man is always going to leave a very uncomfortable feeling, because it doesn’t look as if justice is seen to be done in those circumstances. I think it’s also true that the different versions of events that have emerged in recent days have not done a great deal to help here. I don’t know full details any more than anyone else does. But I do believe that in such circumstances when we are faced with someone who was manifestly a war criminal, in terms of the atrocities inflicted, it is important that justice is seen to be observed."
The British papers this morning have been full of the usual indignation at his "left-wing" views and head-shaking at his "naivete". The usual guff about how churchmen should stick to religion is everywhere. The veteran British officer Colonel Bob Stewart, whom I debated this morning on BBC radio, said we should know all the facts before "pontificating".
But the Archbishop made clear he didn't know all the facts. He was making a point about the one fact we now do know: that bin Laden was unarmed at the time he was shot. Whether he was executed by deliberate order (the complications of arresting and trying him are after all almost too great to contemplate) or because he failed to surrender (the Navy Seals feared a suicide vest or worse) is among the facts we don't know. But that he was shot while unarmed leaves open the strong possibility that this was an extra-judicial killing.
To which a chorus of voices has cried: so what? Did bin Laden care about the death of unarmed people? Why have any sympathy for such a monster? But this is not about him; it's about us, and whether the means of self-defence we deploy to preserve our way of life are consonant with our values, or whether, in sacrificing principles for the sake of a perceived immediate goal, we hand our enemies a victory, and so prolong the battle.
That's the point the Archbishop wanted to make. When terrorists wage war on democratic countries under the rule of law, they not only slay the innocent but tempt civilized nations to abandon the rule of law. And they key point about the rule of law is that nobody is outside it, whoever they are and whatever they have done; and the law cannot be set aside because it is justified to do so. The enormity of bin Laden's crimes, therefore is irrelevant; if anything, it makes the need for deploying the law more, not less, compelling.
We put Hitler's henchmen on trial not because we cared about them but because we cared about what they scorned. A war criminal is one who has committed grotesque crimes against humanity. Those crimes need to be punished in such a way that they are made less likely in the future. In a strange way, we gave bin Laden an easy way out: after all death, for such a man, is the norm.
Although, as the Vatican said, no one should ever rejoice over another's death,bin Laden's demise means that the threat from this darkest of all dark lords has been neutralized, and that, certainly, is a cause for relief. It was a superbly executed, daring operation for which President Obama deserves all the credit. But if it turns out -- and there are lots of "if's" -- that what President Obama meant by "justice" was in fact retribution or revenge, then a great opportunity to teach a lesson to bin Laden's followers and admirers has been lost. For killing an unarmed man looks too much like what Al-Qaeda does for that lesson to have much impact on the wider world.
And taking my cue from the Archbishop of Canterbury's tendency to make easy enemies by saying what is unwelcome, I'd add this: if, in the US, this discomfort is not as prevalent as it should be, look no further than the death penalty -- for there is nothing better designed to tempt a nation to abandon the moral anchor of its law. Apart from terrorism, that is.