Readings: When Is A Killing Not a Murder?

This is the first in a series of blog posts called "Readings." As a subscriber to 15 periodicals, I will share what I discover and maybe introduce you to a new author.

There's a news media phenomenon I call the “give-it-a-week syndrome.” The story on Sunday may become a very different story within a week. The death of Osama bin Laden is a classic example.

I flicked my TV on around midnight last Sunday to a foreign language news broadcast where the subtext seemed to say that Osama bin Laden was dead; but that was contradicted, I thought, by the video of hoards of young people screaming “U. S. A.” and yelling and waving American flags, as at a football game. Both were true. The bad guy was dead and college kids were dancing in the streets. He had died like a coward, but in battle, the report said, clutching his wife as a shield, shooting it out with heroic Navy Seals. The next morning the tabloids rejoiced. The New York Daily News shouted, “Rot in Hell!” on page 1 and ran that as a banner the rest of the week.

An email from a lawyer friend said: “I think it may become clear that there was a summary execution.”

That had been implied in President Obama’s announcement the night before, just from the way he emphasized the word “kill,” and the way administration spokesmen tacked on vague references to the dead man or his wife or son making “threatening gestures.” But soon we knew there was no “battle.” Our troops quickly killed a man and a woman on the first floor then started up the stairs. No more shots were fired. Bin Laden stood in his doorway, turned back into his room. Our troops entered the room. Bin Laden was unarmed, although reportedly a Seal saw a gun elsewhere in the room. They shot their target in the chest and head, blowing off part of his skull, scooped up the body, took pictures of the corpse, wrapped him and dumped him in the ocean from one of our ships.

This event, said the President, will unify America, proving we can do anything as a nation that we put our minds to. My list of other things we should put our minds to is long.

I have mixed emotions. I am relieved that Osama bin Laden was found. I am ashamed, as a former army officer and as a Catholic priest, that, under these circumstances, he was killed.

It is clear that we never had any intention of capturing him and putting him on trial. Eric Holder had said months ago that Osama bin Laden would never appear in an American courtroom. A trial, with all its requirements, would just be too much of a hassle. Borrow the morality of Tony Soprano: waste him. And no, we could not see his corpse; but we could see him Sunday, grey- bearded and foolish, in his rubbish-strewn room, clutching a remote, watching TV.

The Washington Post Style section fantasized on the physique of the Seal who fired the shot —age around 30, white, broad shoulders, thin waist, good abs, rough hands, positive thinker, and a battle wound somewhere on his body. Meanwhile, without evidence, the torturers from the Bush administration tried to connect the successful raid with their tortures inflicted years ago.

The editor of The Progressive said he rejoiced at the death of a mass murderer. Then he listed other mass murderers: Harry Truman at Hiroshima and Nagasaki; Ronald Reagan arming the contras in Nicaragua and the army in El Salvador; Lyndon Johnson in Vietnam. We had killed many more than bin Laden. We are against violence only when it is used against us.

On the other hand, say some psychologists, teenagers have lived under the threat of terrorism, heard of alerts, plots, and long lines at airports; and revenge is a natural response to “existential anxiety.” Another points out that this generation has been conditioned to view the world as a video game: dragon monster in a mountain castle to be slain before the game ends.

According to the Fordham Ram, a celebration which began jubilantly turned solemn with the reading of the names of students and alumni who died on Sept. 11, 2001, that “reverently remembered life instead of flaunting death.” Outside historic St. Paul’s Chapel at Ground Zero, where 9/11 victims were nursed, a 21-year-old music student held a sign quoting John Donne’s “Any man’s death diminishes me.” One passer-by called him a “moron,” and another simply said “@#$% you, idiot.” A Times letter writer bluntly said, “This mindless merriment, based on hatred, fear, and foolish indifference to the rage it inspires outside the United States, echoes the mindless viciousness of terrorists.”

I agree with my lawyer friends who say: This is not justice. Justice means arrest, fair trial, and punishment. Robert Fisk, the renowned British war correspondent who has interviewed bin Laden several times, says it best: “The real problem is that the West, which has constantly preached to the Arab world that legality and non-violence was the way forward in the Middle East, has taught a different lesson to the people of the region: that executing your opponents is perfectly acceptable.”

READINGS: The New York Times, Washington Post, New York Daily News, Slate, The Atlantic, The Progressive, The Independent, The Fordham Ram, Huffington Post, Tikkun, Information Clearing House, CNN, MSNBC, emails and conversation with students and alumni at Fordham and Boston College.

Raymond A. Schroth

 

Marie Rehbein
6 years 2 months ago
I am not sure what all this lamenting of perfectly normal human reactions is meant to accomplish.  Young people cheered because they have they energy and the simple fact of the matter is that one very bad guy was no longer in a position to do his evil. 

No one should underestimate the role bin Laden's money and leadership played in making the world dangerous and the economy weak.  It's not all about bad mortgages.  It's also about government military spending.

Debating the morality of invading the man's space and killing him before he had a chance to grab his weapons and kill those who invaded is not necessary.  Let God sort it out.
Dale Rodrigue
6 years 2 months ago
I agree with everything Marie stated. 
Also, there is indeed a difference between killing and murdering.

Furthermore, where does the good padre get his information?  Is he certain about the facts in this case?  And are you saying that the Seals should have let Bin Laden shoot them first? What kind of idiocy is that? Is this what you tell your military families in your parish when they come to you for pastoral care?

But the most audacious part was: '' I agree with my lawyer friends who say: This is not justice. Justice means arrest, fair trial, and punishment.''
Now Padre, we are not stupid or gullible, we all know that he was guilty, he admitted to slaughtering thousands of innocent victims around the world.  He was guilty as sin.  If he was convicted in federal court he would have been given the death sentence.  You state you agree with your lawyer friends' statement (including punishment) then I presume you would have agreed with the death sentence  that he would have been given?  I doubt it, it's easy to say that now but if he had been tried and convicted you would be the first one out there protesting his death sentence. And as far as your lawyer friends, Oh how moral some lawyers are :)  Or could it be they have remorse because they didn't get to ''milk'' the limelight or money a trial would have brought?  Give me a break.
6 years 2 months ago
"Our troops quickly killed a man and a woman on the first floor then started up the stairs. No more shots were fired. Bin Laden stood in his doorway, turned back into his room. Our troops entered the room. Bin Laden was unarmed, although reportedly a Seal saw a gun elsewhere in the room.   They shot their target in the chest and head, blowing off part of his skull, scooped up the body, took pictures of the corpse, wrapped him and dumped him in the ocean from one of our ships."

We also agonized over whether or not to bomb the place to smithereens, but the Pres. apparently thought there would be too much collateral damage.  Moreover, we also took certain pains apparently to comply with some basic Muslim ritual with respect to the body.  Your "shaping" of this narrative is somewhat unfair it seems to me.

And what purpose a trial for a man who rejected Western values of fair play and due process?  What purpose when he admitted, he relished his cruel plan for Sept. 11?  This is a great evil; to me sometimes what is needed is silence.
ed gleason
6 years 2 months ago
I was thinking about the Normandy beaches on June 6 '44 and whether an order "to not shoot at the guy with the binoculars" when storming a pill box would ever be spoken.
Rangers shot and died there and Seals shot and did not die in Abbottabad. End of story. 
ed gleason
6 years 2 months ago
I was thinking about the Normandy beaches on June 6 '44 and whether an order "to not shoot at the guy with the binoculars" when storming a pill box would ever be spoken.
Rangers shot and died there and Seals shot and did not die in Abbottabad. End of story. 
david power
6 years 2 months ago
I agree with everybody except David Smith :).
What would the Author do?Call off the hunt for Bin Laden?
Have the seals go in to a house with an arrest warrant knowing the guy could have blown them all apart?
Have America forget that people are truly out to wipe them out?
Turn the other cheek till everybody is dead?
Lead ,follow or get out of the way!
The author in this case seems to be righteously dissaproving of the actions taken which is easy when you don't have to offer an alternative.
Unless the author can offer an alternative plan and accept all the pitfalls that will come with it ,then his writing is just moral posturing.

Marie's comment "Young people cheered because they have the energy " is so funny and so true.
Stephen SCHEWE
6 years 2 months ago
Dear Father Schroth,

I wasn't there for it, but the historical record suggests there was a lot of celebrating on V-J Day, the last time the U.S. defeated an enemy who had directly attacked our shores.  To answer the question in your lead, murder is done by criminals.  Soldiers kill enemies in war, according to the rules of war.  Bin Laden was killed as part of a high-risk military operation deep inside Pakistan, a country which seems to have earned the status of a hostile, undeclared enemy in this war.  We had publicly warned Pakistan on many occasions (including statements in the previous two weeks by Admiral Mullen and Hillary Clinton) that they were not doing enough to round up terrorists in their midst.  We can do our best to avoid celebrating death (and I admit it's not easy for me; I kind of like the new drink joke about the OBL: "two shots and a splash of water") while expressing legitimate relief that a man who orchestrated and celebrated the killing of 3,000 innocent civilians in a surprise attack will never do it again.

You do your argument no credit by quoting Robert Fisk; he's not objective, one reason why he repeatedly got access to Bin Laden for interviews.  Where we have the opportunity, we'll arrest criminals and offer them due process, as we did with Zacarias Moussaoui.  If you want the U.S. to behave better during wars, you'll get more traction in focusing on the legitimate excesses and violations of the rules of war that have occurred since 9/11, such as our government's record of torture, or on whether our appetites for oil cause us to compromise our ideals regarding due process and non-violence.
6 years 2 months ago
I have a few comments.

1. Maybe we should have trials for wanted criminals after a set time period.  Then a verdict could be issued and a sentence made.  In this particular case, the sentence would almost assuredly be death.  The Seals would have just executed the sentence.


2.  Why were the others killed and not returned to a prison for interrogation.  There seems to be a big opportunity missed here.  I have my thoughts but this was stupid unless the Seals thought they all might have suicide vests.  Also here was true assassinations of people with no specific crime except harboring Bin Laden and nobody is making a peep.  I wonder why?


3.  There is probably a lot about this raid that we do not know.  Look at all the mis information in the first day.  Does anyone think we know exactly how it played out over the last 8 months and on the night of the actual mission?
Crystal Watson
6 years 2 months ago
A really good post - thank you!
Helena Loflin
6 years 2 months ago
The difference between a kill shot and waterboarding: the former is effective.

Saddam Hussein was tried, found guilty and hung.  He was killed by the U.S. as surely as was OBL.  Just a different method.
Crystal Watson
6 years 2 months ago
What I never can get is why christians feel no disconnect between what Jesus taught in the sermon on the mount and this glee at killing someone.  What I also don't get is how some liberals, the same people who felt it was wrong for Bush to decide that the war on terrorism sttod outside the Geneva Conventions, the same people who constantly criticize Israel for their treatment of terrorists, are now sanguine about an assassination. If we make an exception to our laws and our ethics and morals  for OBL because he's so bad, then we might as well admit those laws and ethics and morals are constructs that have no intrinsic worth.
PJ Johnston
6 years 2 months ago
The fact of the matter is that there are internationally recognized standards for extrajudicial killing and if stories that bin Laden was captured alive and then butchered are true, we have clearly violated them.  The UN Special Rapporteur on Extrajudicial Killing has issued a call for information which says in a nutshell "Release the orders that prove you did not go on a kill mission but attempted to capture bin Laden alive and were simply prevented from doing so by a direct and immanent threat to your own safety, and dispel the current narrative of facts that he was captured alive and unarmed but then summarily executed, or else we will have to conclude that this killing was unlawful".  It doesn't get any clearer than that.

http://www.ohchr.org/EN/NewsEvents/Pages/DisplayNews.aspx?NewsID=10987&LangID=E

The Special Rapporteur is interviewed at just shy of 9 minutes into this BBC audio:

http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b006qnz4
PJ Johnston
6 years 2 months ago
"But I agree with President Obama, that anyone who is overly concerned about the demise of Osama Bin Laden needs to have his head examined."

Then all Christians who believe in the Gospel of Jesus Christ need to have their heads examined, because the Gospel does not permit the use of violence at all, much less against unarmed persons.
PJ Johnston
6 years 2 months ago
http://www.newyorker.com/online/blogs/newsdesk/2011/05/bin-laden-the-rules-of-engagement.html


"Father Schroth and others might want to read it.  Based on this interpretation of what guides military action, it was appropriate to kill Osama bin Laden unless he was actively trying to surrender.  It also guides the drone attacks and other military actions which kill individuals in a time of war."

If there is a conflict between US rules of engagement and established international law about extrajudicial killing, then the killing of OBL is unlawful ("murder") if it violates the latter notwithstanding the possible legality of the operation under US law.  The higher court is international law.  (And the highest court of all is God's law, the Christian Gospel, which forbids all violence period).
6 years 2 months ago
''The UN Special Rapporteur on Extrajudicial Killing has issued a call for information which says in a nutshell ''


The UN is basically an immoral institution and there is no way that the US should listen to anything they say.  The UN do better looking at themselves and all the deaths they have contributed to since they have been in existence.  But they won't because everything is politics no matter how immoral they are.


 ''The higher court is international law. ''


International law is a joke.  There is no way the US should bow to international law nor does any other country in the world.  Who appointed the so called interpreters of international law?  Some European jurists?  It is nothing more than political correctness designed to achieve some political goal and not necessarily a just outcome.  People have been fighting wars for as long as humans have existed.  While it is an extremely undesirable activity, it has long established procedures of engagement.  The article I pointed to gave some very standard and accepted ways of conducting military actions and I do not think they are entirely US in origin.


''the highest court of all is God's law, the Christian Gospel, which forbids all violence period''
 

Unfortunately many do not adhere to this principle and for those who do they have contributed to the deaths of hundreds of millions of people.  Pacifism has probably killed more people than any other attitude in the history of mankind.  Thucydides said that weakness is the greatest cause for war when writing about the Peloponnesian War.  So while one can say that the Christian Gospel forbids all violence it also implies that one must find the best way to stop violence.  In practice pacifism is the biggest killer in history of mankind while the willingness to defend one self or people is probably the greatest preventer of deaths in the history of mankind.
Crystal Watson
6 years 2 months ago
" Thucydides said that weakness is the greatest cause for war when writing about the Peloponnesian War."

Thucydides did not believe might made right.  He made this observation when he wrote about the war between powerful Athens and defenseless Melos.  As stated in Wikipedia (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Melos) ...

"Thucydides made this event the occasion of one of the most impressive of the "speeches" in his history. Written like the others in more complex and difficult Greek than his pellucid narrative, this passage, known as the Melian Dialogue, is a locus classicus for the contest between raison d'état and ethical action, and is the fulcrum at which the state of Athens in his history abandoned the noble ideals with which it had entered the war and began to pursue simply its own self-interest."

Thus was the expression coined: "The strong do what they can and the weak suffer what they must".

6 years 2 months ago
''Thucydides did not believe might made right''


Nor is anyone else here making such a claim that I know of.  But people do respect the ''strong horse'' especially when it is protecting the weaker ones.
6 years 2 months ago
Both civil and church law recognize the difference between killing and murder. Between homicide, manslaughter, and premeditated murder..... the difference has to do with circumstance, knowledge and freedom of both parties, and the existence of deadly threat posed by one (or both). 

That's why there's a moral distinction between a miscarriage (infant dies of natural causes) and abortion (infant is intentionally killed).

Accidentally backing over a child kills her dead. But it's not murder. Shooting into a bush with the intention of hitting a deer is not the same thing as intentionally shooting because one THINKS there's a deer in there (and not a fellow hunter). 

As individual Christians we have 3 possibilities in the face of injustice and imminent or immediate unjust aggression against our persons: we can choose to suffer, we can flee or evade the aggressor.... or we can confront the aggressor in self-defense in a proportionate way when possible. But when we are responsible for the good of others like the young or old, weak or vulnerable then we do not have the moral option of passivity or abadoning them to the evil-doers but have the responsibility to either lay down our lives for our friends - or actively stop the unjust aggressor even if it means violence. 

Countries and those whose responsibility includes the common good likewise are not free to do nothing in the face of immediate or imminent threat to the common good. The key notions here are the common good, whether someone or group are in fact unjust aggressors, and whether violence is the only or best means of either maintaining or recovering the common good. 

Killing an unjust aggressor is not the same thing as murdering someone. Neither is executing an unjust aggressor after a trial the same thing as premeditated murder conducted by vigilante out of vengeance. 

The weird thing socially though is how the various theological and ideological blocs in todays' Western world break down who is and is not an unjust aggressor and who has or has not the right to life. 

Alot of the same groups and blocs who are currently aghast that the US Government would shoot OBL on sight have little moral quibbles with abortion. It makes one wonder whether in their minds terrorists are considered less of an existential threat to their lifestyle and world view than the unborn child.   
PJ Johnston
6 years 2 months ago
JR Cosgrove:

First Things is not a serious journal with a real exchange of viewpoints, it's a propaganda organ of neo-con shills.  They dumped Stanley Hauerwas as an editor and Paul Griffiths as a regular contributor precisely because neither one was hawkish enough for them.  Hauerwas is a pacifist and Griffiths is a just war theorist who believes that wars are seldom if ever justified.  Then 9/11 happened and the neo-con administration wanted to go to war in Afghanistan so they dropped both from their regular pool of contributors like lead weights in order to ensure that only the pro-war viewpoint was represented.

Your other article is irrelevant because it only addresses the question of whether or not the action against OBL was legal under US law, not the more salient question of whether or not it is legal under international law or God's law.  (Just because you and David Smith heap scorn on the UN and international law, it remains a fact that the US is signatory to the Geneva Conventions and UN human rights protocola and is therefore both morally and legally obligated to obey them).

As for the assertion that pacifism has killed more people than anyone in history, it is absurd on the face of it.  Pacifists do not kill people.  Military actions kill people.  It is military action that has killed more people than any human behavior in history.

The idea that violence is the only way to prevent violence is a myth our culture buys into, but it is a myth nevertheless, and one which is directly opposed to the vision of the cosmos in the Bible and the Christian tradition.(http://www.ekklesia.co.uk/content/cpt/article_060823wink.shtml).

John Lyons:

I absolutely, categorically believe that abortion is murder.

Where church and civil law give allowance for violence, they act in a way contrary to God's law.
6 years 2 months ago
''As for the assertion that pacifism has killed more people than anyone in history, it is absurd on the face of it.  Pacifists do not kill people.  Military actions kill people.  It is military action that has killed more people than any human behavior in history.''


I stand by my comments.  Pacifism invites the military action that kills the hundreds of millions of people.  So in that sense it kills big time by being an enabler.  The willingness to defend and fight aggression is what stops killing.  Pacifism by its very name does not do the actual killing but they set the table for the mass murderers by saying come and kill as you want because we will not stop you.  Defending pacifism as pro life is absurd and given our human nature, anti life. 


So if you have Christian love, be willing to prevent others from killing and there is no shortage of those who would do that.  Trying to portray those that are trying to reduce the number of people being killed in this world is one of mind boggling contradictions of those who say they are pro life but do not support the military actions that are required to thwart the mass murderers.  If one wants to take on a personal pacifist mantle, go ahead but they should not criticize those who want to stop the killing in a way that has proven itself for centuries.


There is no international law.  Those who claim there is are just pointing to a construct of some group that calls itself the holders of international law and as such has no bearing on the US or authority over the US.  The only law that the US must obey is its own law which if it is moral comes from God.  A lot of US law does not come from God and certainly the so called international law does not either.  It is nothing more than a political construct devised for the personal ends of certain group of people for their own ends and changes with the wind.   International law is one of the most absurd concepts out there.


Where does God's law come from?  How do we know it? Are you the interpreter of it?  Are you a modern day prophet giving it to us?  It was not so long ago when you questioned the Catholic Church or gospels as anything special so where are you getting your version of God's Law?
PJ Johnston
6 years 2 months ago
The Sermon on the Mount prohibits all use of violence, even in self-defense.  Instead of the principle of judicial talion permitted in the OT ("an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth"), if someone strikes you on one cheek, you have to turn the other also.  The stanard interpretation of this passage by modern Biblical scholars is that it endorses pacifism, and this is how it was read by Christians for the first three centuries of the Church's existence.  Those who were closest in time and culture to Jesus and his teachings knew that this text required non-violence.  You are not criticizing me, you are criticizing God's law as revealed by Jesus Christ. 

No Christian bishop, theologian, or council before Constantine is on record supporting the view that a Christian was allowed to kill under any circumstances. Most of them argued that Christians could not even be soldiers or magistrates unless they occupied this social position before their conversion of Christianity, and then they must not kill or order anyone to be killed. A few required them to renounce their position as soldiers or governors altogether, whether or not they promised to refrain from killing, because the position would present irresistible temptations to use violence.

http://www.thegospelcoalition.org/publications/33-1/nonviolence-in-the-ancient-church-and-christian-obedience

Some representative quotations from the early church:

A soldier, being inferior in rank to God, must not kill anyone. If ordered to, he must not carry out the order, nor may he take an oath (sacramentum) to do so. If he does not accept this, let him be dismissed from the church.
Anyone bearing the power of the sword, or any city magistrate, who wears purple, let him cease from wearing it at once or be dismissed from the church.
Any catechumen or believer who wishes to become a soldier must be dismissed from the church because they have despised God

(first three from Hippolytus)

It is better to suffer wrong than to inflict it. We would rather shed our own blood than stain our hands and our conscience with that of another. As a result, an ungrateful world is now enjoying–and for a long period has enjoyed–a benefit from Christ (Arnobius)

‎"Christ, in disarming Peter, disarmed every soldier" (Tertullian). "God has willed that iron be used for tilling the earth, and has forbidden its use for taking human life," "'the hand that has held the Eucharist must not be stained with blood and the sword" (Cyprian). "I cannot be a soldier. I cannot do evil. I am a Christian" (Maximilian). "I am a soldier of Christ: it is not lawful for me to fight" (Martin)

You can fact check by consulting a half a dozen or so books on the subject of early Christian beliefs about warfare and peace written by authors from a variety of positions on the ideological spectrum (just war, pacifist, total war, whatever).  You will find that the teaching and discipline of the Church for its first 300 or so years was absolute unconditional non-violence, and that it sold out when it got a "Christian" emperor under Constantine.


PJ Johnston
6 years 2 months ago
"It was not so long ago when you questioned the Catholic Church or gospels as anything special so where are you getting your version of God's Law?"

I did?  Where?  Did I say this, or is this the way you interpret respect for other religions?
PJ Johnston
6 years 2 months ago
It should come as no surprise to you that the IMF is an organization that has a political agenda.  It is in essence an organized pro-business, pro-capitalism lobby, and it always recommends cutting entitlements and remains silent about military spending.  This makes it not particularly credible as a source of budget recommendations for Christians.

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