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The EditorsMay 23, 2011

The violent death of the fanatic who orchestrated the deaths of thousands of others has raised a set of critical ethical questions. Was the raid on the Abbottabad hideaway that claimed Osama bin Laden’s life an assassination? Or was the team of Navy Seals under instructions simply to apprehend Bin Laden, taking him alive, if possible, to be tried for the deadly terrorist acts he ordered? Or does it even matter whether the intent of the military team—and the president who ordered them in—was to kill or to capture?

A case has been made for the outright assassination of Bin Laden, a man with the declared intention of pursuing his deadly jihad against the West, if only to spare other innocent lives and forestall future mayhem. Even if an exception is allowed for summary execution in the case of Bin Laden, an exception most Americans seem all too ready to grant, we might do well to ask whether making such exceptions has now become the rule. Once critical of the extrajudicial killings in the Latin American “Dirty Wars” of the 1970s and ’80s, Americans have lost their inhibitions when it comes to today’s Islamic terrorists. The United States, which not so long ago condemned the targeted killing by Israelis of alleged terrorists, appears to have no qualms about itself calling down strikes against those regarded as hostile parties. In authorizing assassination attempts against suspected terrorist leaders, the United States is adopting the methods it finds so reprehensible in terrorist organizations.

State-ordered assassinations are not unprecedented in U.S. history. The committee headed by Senator Frank Church, organized in 1975 to investigate U.S. government-sponsored assassination, uncovered a long list of foreign leaders who had been targeted for elimination. Ngo Dinh Diem of South Vietnam, Patrice Lumumba of the Congo and Fidel Castro of Cuba were among the most prominent. The Church committee findings so shocked the country that every president from Jimmy Carter through Bill Clinton issued executive orders prohibiting government-ordered assassinations.

With the declaration of the “war on terror” a decade ago, all that changed. Within a week of the attacks on Sept. 11, 2001, Congress passed the Authorization and Use of Military Force Act, which authorized the president to take “all necessary and appropriate action” against Al Qaeda and other terrorist organizations. In effect, this was a declaration of war.

Since then, targeted killings—in a nonmilitary context they would be called assassinations—have proliferated wildly. Since 2001, 1,500 suspected terrorists have been killed by drones, unmanned planes capable of far greater precision with their laser-guided weapons than conventional bombing or missile raids. The change in administration in 2008 has only brought about an expansion in targeted killings. In the past two years Mr. Obama has ordered four times as many strikes as George W. Bush did during his entire eight years in office.

The collateral damage from these raids has been well publicized: the recent killing of some 20 Pakistanis at a rural council meeting, for example, and dozens of innocent lives taken in earlier raids targeting Bin Laden. But possibly the greatest collateral damage is that done to the ethical principles that the United States has long held dear.

The principled argument against targeted killing is that it opens the door for secret, arbitrary murders with no accountability for those who order them. There is a slippery slope from justified execution of known public enemies by executive order to tyrannical power. President Obama has already extended his authority to assassinate terrorists who are American citizens. He is considered a man of restraint, but what if someone less reflective or with less self-control stood in his shoes? And what of those who carry out “black ops” under presidential authority? Innocents have been killed unintentionally during such operations, and assailants have sometimes executed the wrong “target.” Those deaths are reason enough to be wary of a policy of targeted killing. But the ideal of free government, at the heart of which stands the denial to rulers of arbitrary power over life and limb, should hold Americans back all the more.

At the end of World War II, President Harry Truman insisted that the Nazi leaders responsible for the greatest horror of the last century be brought to trial at Nuremburg rather than summarily hanged, as some suggested. Yet the elevation of national security in this age of protracted terrorism has brought about a change in the rules. Before the United States accepts targeted killing as a standard response in its latest “war,” it would do well to reflect more deeply on the issue. Hard cases make bad policy. American principles and a long history of moral reflection in the West suggest that this practice should never be the rule.

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Vincent Gaitley
12 years 11 months ago
The unconditional surrender and defeat of Nazi Germany provided the conditions for a judicial procedure for war criminals.  Sadly, we are not at peace and certainly not at peace with Bin Laden's non-governmental terrorist agency.  So, we fight a justified fight of self-defense and prevention.  And the rogue is dead.  Good.  Remember that the problem of being an outlaw is, essentially, the loss of the protection of the laws one defies.  Commanders in the field are always targets, even if they are hiding at home.  
Richard Sullivan
12 years 11 months ago
War is between sovereign nations. While politicians talk about a war on terrorism, is it realy war? I don't know who is responsible for the Geneva prohibition on the assassination of a sovereign leader who initiated war. It is alright to kill a foot soldier but not the leader who declared war and sent him into battle? That doesn't seem like justice to me.
Michael Patrick Joyce
12 years 11 months ago

Murder is murder. It cannot be sugar coated, or wrapped in a nations flag.

Vengeance is our nation's official response to 9/11.
Christopher Mulcahy
12 years 11 months ago

Concepts of war and justified attack are terribly muddled in this piece as well as in some reader responses.  The question was asked whether or not Bin Laden was assassinated or was it a capture attempt.   The article seems to assume the former, but we don’t really know yet.   The expression “assassination attempts against suspected terrorist leaders”  was gratuitously used, when the US is, in fact, obviously at war.  The word “assassination” does not apply against an active enemy.  (Ex: in the movie ‘IWO JIMA” did John Wayne “assassinate” Japanese?)

Ngo Dinh Diem was not targeted by the Kennedy administration, although under duress he gave the OK to the Saigon regime to proceed. 

“This was a declaration of war . . .since then, targeted killings have proliferated wildly.”  Isn’t this good?  If the war is just, targeted killings, as opposed to untargeted killings (WWII bombings, etc.) would seem to be the moral choice.  Numerous military observers have marveled at the accuracy and minimal collateral damage of laser guided munitions. 

Then the second to last paragraph seems a muddle of non-logic.  The assertion that “The principled argument against targeted killing is that it opens the door for secret, arbitrary murders with no accountability” is a statement with no meaning.  A steak knife opens the door to secret, arbitrary murder, too.  In fact, as noted above,  targeted killing is the ideal methodology of a just war.  Proportionality is an element in Catholic just war theory.  In the second to last paragraph, the word “assassinate” is used again, purely gratuitously.  Finally, and  goodness sakes,  “innocents have been killed unintentionally  during such (black ops) operations, and assailants have sometimes executed the wrong “target.”  Yes, war is dangerous. 

Nazi leaders?  As Vincent Gaitley points out, this was a case of judicial procedure after the unconditional surrender of Germany and not a policy for active war fighting.  Not applicable to the discussion.

Can’t a publication of America’s stature present the Catholic moral standards for the current Middle East conflict/s more clearly than this?
Robert Harrison
12 years 11 months ago

As a retired soldier and a Catholic, I can see this argument. It is a sound one, for it's indeed a dangerous slope for our Country. But let me highlight a few facts from experience about these operations.

When a soldier goes into this sort of an action, his commander is vitally concerned with the accomplishment of the mission.  That is of prime importance. Followed right behind this is the well being of his men. The men, who carried this out, were operating at night in a fast moving situation.  Hostile fire was in the immediate area, and more might develop at any moment. They were wearing night vision devices, which are far dimmer than observing a target in the light of day. They couldn't see every detail about the target’s person. They were also aware of the fanatical nature of the man, leading them to think he could be wearing an explosive vest.

If a soldier cannot determine, without a doubt, that the target is not armed, he is to shoot the target. In World War I when troops stormed the enemy’s trenches, the standard procedure was to sweep over the position and shoot or bayonet an enemy soldier that didn’t have his hands lifted above his shoulders palms facing forward. This was for the general safety of the advancing soldier.  Mistakes are made, but it has to be this way for the safety of the soldier.

A final point; the Seal team was a professional military unit. Soldiers do not assassinate their enemy. It is against the Geneva Convention which they swear an oath to obey. Now, if they had been CIA agents, the intention might have been different.  But you can be sure the Seal team would have taken him prisoner if they had known beyond a shadow of a doubt it was safe to do so.

Frank Gibbons
12 years 11 months ago
Michael Joyce wrote"Murder is murder. It cannot be sugar coated,or wrapped in a nations flag."

I would add that it also can't be swept under the rug because the victim is unborn.

Maybe it's the 50 million abortions that have inured us to the horror of murder.

With 41% of pregnancies in NY city ending in abortion, is it any wonder that our urban youth are killing one another without compunction.

For those who will say I'm off topic, I refer you to Cardinal Bernadin's seamless garment.

Joseph Quigley
12 years 11 months ago
I used this story when commenting on the article Paths of Consciene not knowing that Osama bin Laden was going to be killed by US Navy SEALs.
When I studied International Relations at the height of the Cold War our University tutor told us that when one enters the realm of Realpolitik the morality that applies to our every day social intercourse no longer applies.
When a person of President Obama's standing can describe the killing of Osama bin Laden as "Justice has been done," it looks like my tutor was right.
Tom Maher
12 years 11 months ago
This editorial distorts reality and thereby comes up with false moral conclusions.  Why is it that the facts are not accuratley represented?   A moral issue of murder is not supported by the facts.   The facts are rearrrange distorted nd omitted to fit what seems to be a compulsive need to moralize without basis.  Bin Ladin and AL Queda have an extensive 22 year history of mayhem all over the world.  And has repeatedly attacked the Uited States homeland and U.S> citrizens and offices abroad. .

Aren't there enough real moral problem in the world?

This editorial ignores the important detail that bin Ladin was a real military threat as a leader, organizer and planner of Al Queta with numerous succeful terrorist attacks causing mass destruction all over the world.  His organization AL Queda which he controlled and encouraged had also many more attempted attacks that failed up to the present time.  Further bin Laden and  Al Queda were repeatedly attempting to obtain nuclear weapons to make their mass attacks even more destructive.  

The fact show overwhelmingly that Bin Ladin is an on-going military threat to the security of the  United States and a threat to world peace.  The moralizing that he should not be engaged as a military target distorts the facts.  Bin Laden should not be given special consideration that other military attackers on our country would not have.  Bin Ladin was a dangerous military threat that needed to be eleiminated by all possible means.   
Eileen Gould
12 years 11 months ago
All male comments so far and few indicate any inner movement in conscience.   I had hoped that "An eye for an eye" had gone out of the lexicon since the advent of the New Testament.
Tom Maher
12 years 11 months ago

Elleen (#9)

One of the main findings of the 9/11 Commission was the lack of imagination in updating modern day security needs of society. 

Modern technology and its widespread use is being widely used as powerful weapons against society.  Seemly innocent objects like a large jet aircraft or agricultural fertilizer ( essentcial nitrogen) now been repeatedly used worldwide as deadly weapons capable of weapons worldwide inclduing  missles, explosives and heavy arms.  The highly coordinated attack on the Madrid commuter railways all detonated at the same time using cellphones attaacked to explosive.  Al Queda has been very creative in it destrcutive plans and very deadly.

And if they are at all able they will get and use nuclear  nuclear weapons which are saddly actually being sold by countries like North Korea.  U.S. Senate Intelligence committee in the 1990s warned that a nuclear device is likely to  be detonated in  U.S. cities.  The means, motive, and opportunities for nuclear bonb detonation by terrorist already exist separately and only need to be combined into a successful coordinated plan which Al Queda has demostrated repeatedly it is very good at. 

And realistically in the last 2000 years nations years and forever before that nations have attackes nations on a reqgular basis all the time right up to the present.  

So your expectations are not realistic.  Warfare and attacks on society is not  "male" specualtion; it is manifest  reality which we all face and must realistically deal with. We live in a real and dangerous world not a protected nusery.  Adults must know and deal with reality. 

C Walter Mattingly
12 years 11 months ago
While I would not necessarily agree with the editors' point of view here, I recognize its integrity in here levelling criticism, however faint and reluctant, of its favorite political son, President Obama.
Yet one wonders how it can cite him as a man of restraint, giving him a free pass to act as he did because of, what, his winning personality, rather than the facts.
Examing those facts, it is hard not to conclude that the president has done a remarkably coherent and consistent job of extending and intensifying President Bush's 2nd term war policies. He has (wisely, I think) retained both Bush's immensely popular Secretary of Defense Robert Gates and his stunningly successful General Petraeus in their lead positions. He has quadupled the number of drone attacks, assassinations from afar. He has adopted President Bush's very successful employment of the surge tactic in Iraq to Afghanistan, continued rendition, kept Gitmo open, continued indefinite detention without charge or trial, etc. (While he put an end to some uses of waterboarding, even this had stopped early in the 2nd Bush term.)  But America seems concerned only with somone it consider "less self-reflexive or less self-controlled" rather than what that person proves to be by his actions.  Here America slips back into a customary bias, attending to what the President says, or perhaps his demeanor, rather than what he actually does. In other words, if President Bush, doing similar things, so acts, he is a Texas cowboy; when President Obama does the same things, even with fourfold greater deadliness, substituting frightening terrorist murders with headshots, he is not a Kenyan-Hawaian cowboy, but a measured statesman.
Here doublespeak seems to creep in to the editorial.
Eileen Gould
12 years 11 months ago
Mr. Maher,

I'm hardly in the "nursery" at 85 and have been witness to so much, especially human nature.   If we don't believe in evolutionary theology than we believe in nada...no change.   I stand by my comment because it is my truth.   I can't not respect your truth even if it's not mine.
Tom Maher
12 years 11 months ago
Eileen (#12)

Well apparently I guessed wrong on who you are.  Your comment was so brief it did not explain your rather large expectation that the New Testiiment would somehow govern human events worldwide especially when the subject bin Laden and AL Qaeda are not even Christian but radical moslem jihadist bent on the distruction of all infidels and are working very hard at their destructive goals. 

There are a lot of college kids and even some high school kids on this site who have way more theological training than real-world expereince.  They come off all the time as being very utopian with very unrealistic expectations on what society should be doing.  

Obviously lack of experience is not your problem.  But I have no idea what you mean by "evelutionary theology" or its relevance, if any,  in deling with Al Queda terriorst and bin Laden.  What is "evolutionary theology"  and how might it apply here?   
I hope you are not like one freind of the family I have known forever who still holds it against President Rooseve for breaking his campaign promise in the 1940 election to keep America out of WW II and then in 1941 asked and got a declaration of war in after Pearl Harbor was attacked.  The high expectations of Americans are amazing and can not always be realized in the real world.  
William Jaenike
12 years 11 months ago
Will our politicized Attorney General prosecute those Americans who ordered the assassination of Usama bin Laden? Will he do it with the same determination that he's put into prosecuting Americans "guilty" of waterboarding two of Usama's lieutenants who murdered Americans? Is waterboarding a murderer more heinous than assassinating a murderer?
Eileen Gould
12 years 11 months ago
Father Philip B. Cover does a better job in conveying my feelings in his homily of May 6, 2011, at the Shrine of the Sacred Heart, Baltimore, Md.:

"Our need for national security, defense, and protection does not neutralize Jesus' teachings about the hard, dificult and non-negotiable path of non-violence - cease judging, that you may not be judged; offer no  resistance to one who is evil; love your enemies, and pray for those who persecute you. (Mt. 5-7)   This is truly counter-cultural and counter-intuitive, because in our culture we deal with evil by projecting it elsewhere so we don't have to look within and see both our own complicity in evil and our enormous capacity for good."
Tom Maher
12 years 11 months ago
Eileen (#15)

That is an unusual interpretation of the Gospel you have.

Some people are alive today who still hold it against President Roosevelt for breaking his campaign promise of 1940 to keep the United States out of WW II.   But realistically President Roosevelt or any other American President is not devine and can not prevent attacks on the United States that can and do  happen.  Roosevlet was force to go to wasr and did.  

This is exactly the same with Osama bin Laden who attack the United States on 9/11 and attacked the United States contiuously befor and after 9/11 right up to the present.  Just like Roosevelt Bush and Obama were forced to defend the country which is perfectly acceptable to the Gospel interpretation of the church.  This is not an act ov vengence but a required act of self-defense that help to restore needed law and order.

The Gospel is not counter-culture or counter intuttive document.  One do not need to take a  theology course to understand the plain Gospel message.as  taught by the Church as it has been for 2000 years   Pacifism is a fairly recent political idea of the last 200 years or so that is not  found in the Gospel.  Realistically a nation must and will defend itself and it is morally and politcally necissasry for nations  to do so. It would  be wrong for a nation to stand by and allow the mayhem, disruption and aggression of terrorist to be passively ignored.

Thank you for explaining your views. 
12 years 11 months ago
You write, hopefully, that Mr. Obama "is considered a man of restraint" and then worry about the next one. I used to hope that Mr. Obama could be considered a "man of restraint," but now I don't see it, from the evidence of that paragraph, among other things.

Mr. Obama, like his military hero predecessor as Democratic nominee, was labeled a wimp by the Republican labeling machine. So he had to prove his guts. It happens to all Democrats, whether they will or no. It's hard to see why anyone lacking "guts" would want to run as a Republican. In any case, one who tried wojuld be found out and stopped early in the nomination process.

So America seems doomed to a succession of presidents who will demonstrate how less "reflective or with less self-control" they are. The current one is no worse, and no better, than the recent rest have been.

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