What are the Ethics of Killing Bin Laden?

Margaret Somerville
Originally published as:
"Even bin Laden deserves a trial",
The Globe and Mail, November 23, 2001, A15
© Margaret Somerville
Reproduced with Permission

We test our ethics and fundamental values - in particular, respect for life - best, by how we treat the most despised and reviled people, not those whom we admire and respect. It matters, therefore, how we treat Osama bin Laden, how we characterize that treatment, whether we recognize the obligation to justify it ethically, and, if so, how we do so.

Statements by United States' leaders in recent days are of great concern in all these regards. President Bush who announced that bin Laden was "wanted dead or alive", now makes it clear he wants him dead.

"Dick Cheney, the United States vice-president, has said he would be "happy to accept bin Laden's head on a platter". Donald Rumsfeld, the Secretary of Defence, has insisted that if American servicemen encounter members of al-Qaeda and "they are the kind you want to shoot, then you shoot them". (Alasdair Palmer, "Bin Laden is in love with death, so let the West oblige him", The Telegraph London, November 20, 2001.)

Language is not neutral, especially when we use it intentionally to make ourselves feel ethically justified in undertaking certain actions and to convince others of the rightness of our conduct. Moreover, language elicits feelings and in ethics we ignore our feelings at our ethical peril, because they are connected with moral intuition about right and wrong. We must take care, therefore, that the language we use and the feelings it elicits are ethically appropriate. Is the language being used in relation to bin Laden ethically appropriate? Why is it being chosen? And what might be its effect?

When judges are about to impose capital punishment they often use language that first separates the person condemned to death from the rest of us. (And, indeed, those condemned to death are separated even from other criminals: It is no accident that prisons in the United States where capital punishment is carried out have a "death row".) This language creates a situation of "us" and "them". A condemned prisoner is no longer one of us, is not like us, and, more importantly for us, we are not like him. We dis-identify from the person condemned to death. We then de-personalize and de-humanize this person. He becomes a monster, an animal, evil incarnate or the devil - we demonize the person. We can then kill this person feeling justified in doing so and without feeling that we have infringed the value of respect for life in a way that would threaten our lives, because we are not like him - he is not a person or even human. Much of the language that is being used to justify killing bin Laden, even if he could be captured without killing him, exhibits these same characteristics.

We are, without any doubt not only justified in doing everything necessary to stop bin Laden and his terrorist activities, we have ethical obligations to do so. And if we kill bin Laden in our efforts to capture him, that is ethically justified. But are we justified ethically in killing him, as some people are advocating, if we can capture him without doing so?

If we believe that an ethical response to dealing with bin Laden, still requires us to maintain as fully as possible the value of respect for human life, then we can only justify taking life, including his, when it is necessary in order to save human life. Bin Laden has perpetrated great evil and has inflicted death on many thousands, but we must still not act unethically in inflicting death on him. It is especially important in the context of terrorism to be very self-aware with respect to our motives and intentions, because it is those motives and intentions that distinguish what we do in seeking to wipe out terrorism from what the terrorists do in their infliction of death and destruction. And in ethics intention and motives matter: There is a major ethical difference between killing bin Laden primarily as an act of revenge and doing so when that is the only reasonable way to reduce the threat of terrorism in the future.

In general, we cannot ethically justify killing a person, when, alternatively, he could be captured and taken into custody and tried for his crimes. But could bin Laden be an exceptional case?

Usually, killing a person self-defence because they present a threat to life, is only justified when the threat the person presents is immediate and direct and there is no other reasonable response that would eliminate the threat. The concern about not killing bin Laden, but capturing him and putting him on trial, is that such a trial will augment his heroic status in the eyes of potential terrorist recruits and those who support them, and further spread the seeds of terrorism. That spread constitutes a threat to the lives of many people, which, so the argument goes, cannot be avoided in any other way than immediately killing bin Laden when he is found. In short, the justification for killing him, when he could simply be captured, is to avoid a trial the holding of which could place in jeopardy the lives of many people in the future. We must think deeply before we accept this justification, especially because it involves setting a precedent that we are justified in side-stepping the normal process of justice, which is a serious harm to society, even if we do not care that it is a serious harm to bin Laden as an accused person.

Bin Laden's acts are monstrous and evil but he is still a human being - one of us. Although we recoil in horror from the thought that it is so, we must keep that clearly in mind if we are to act ethically in dealing with him and terrorism, and avoid causing long-term serious harm to our ethics and the ethical tone of our societies. We need to be ethical for our sake and the sake of future generations and societies, not for the sake of bin Laden.