I don’t have a lot to add to the conversation about the death of Osama bin Laden — most of my thoughts are summed up well by others — but I do want to point out something that struck me about Barack Obama’s remarks Sunday night:
Americans understand the costs of war. Yet as a country, we will never tolerate our security being threatened, nor stand idly by when our people have been killed. We will be relentless in defense of our citizens and our friends and allies. We will be true to the values that make us who we are. And on nights like this one, we can say to those families who have lost loved ones to al Qaeda’s terror: Justice has been done.
Has it? He seems quite certain, and I wonder why.
As a Christian, Obama’s personal sense of justice must presumably be founded on Christian principles — on words such as “those who live by the sword, die by the sword,” and “blessed are the peacemakers,” and “turn the other cheek,” and so on. Overall, Jesus seems to take a firm stance against all violence, even in self defense. But in his speech on accepting the Nobel Peace Prize, Obama praised the principle of the ‘just war’:
…war is justified… when certain conditions [are] met: if it is waged as a last resort or in self-defense; if the force used is proportional; and if, whenever possible, civilians are spared from violence.
The idea of ‘just war’ is most fully developed in Catholic doctrine, and has changed over time. Christians during the time of the Crusades believed that violence, even aggression, was fine, as long as it was done for a noble cause. The more limited modern theory of ‘just war’ takes an intermediate view between Jesus and the Crusaders.
But in that same speech, Obama went on to criticize the just war theory as being too impractical:
…while it’s hard to conceive of a cause more just than the defeat of the Third Reich and the Axis powers, World War II was a conflict in which the total number of civilians who died exceeded the number of soldiers who perished…
As a head of state sworn to protect and defend my nation, I cannot be guided by [the non-violent philosophies of King and Gandhi] alone. I face the world as it is, and cannot stand idle in the face of threats to the American people. For make no mistake: Evil does exist in the world. A non-violent movement could not have halted Hitler’s armies. Negotiations cannot convince al Qaeda’s leaders to lay down their arms…
The world must remember that it was not simply international institutions — not just treaties and declarations — that brought stability to a post-World War II world. Whatever mistakes we have made, the plain fact is this: The United States of America has helped underwrite global security for more than six decades with the blood of our citizens and the strength of our arms.
So if the nonviolence of Jesus, King, and Gandhi is too impractical, and the ‘just war’ theory is too idealistic, then by what is Obama guided? Does he agree with the Crusaders — that violence is justified in a good cause? Isn’t this consequentialism — that the ends, in other words, justify the means? Surely Obama would not agree to that. But that’s what “practical” means in this context, when you get right down to it. You do what you have to do to get the job done, even if you have to break a few ethical eggs.
As a druid with Zen Buddhist leanings, I don’t have a Bible writ with doctrines of peace. I know that, while the ancient druids aspired towards peace, the human world, the natural world, is not a place of cut and dried right and wrong. And so I know that in any ethical dilemma, a healthy dollop of humility and doubt is called for. We are mortal creatures of limited knowledge; we cannot see all ends, and our judgements are bound to be faulty. In fact, I think Obama struck nearer the mark when he said — in that same speech:
To say that force may sometimes be necessary… is a recognition of history; the imperfections of man and the limits of reason…. Our challenge is reconciling these two seemingly irreconcilable truths — that war is sometimes necessary, and war at some level is an expression of human folly…
For we are fallible… Even those of us with the best of intentions will at times fail to right the wrongs before us. But we do not have to think that human nature is perfect for us to still believe that the human condition can be perfected. We do not have to live in an idealized world to still reach for those ideals that will make it a better place. The non-violence practiced by men like Gandhi and King may not have been practical or possible in every circumstance, but the love that they preached — their fundamental faith in human progress — that must always be the North Star that guides us on our journey.
I think these words are wise. And so — as hundreds of thousands of civilians were killed in Iraq and Afghanistan and Pakistan — as ultimatums were issued instead of exploring every diplomatic option — as nations were invaded with overwhelming force, far disproportionate to the threat of the terrorist network — as our nation bent and broke so many of the Geneva Conventions — as the laws protecting the privacy and rights of our own citizens have been legislated away with barely any debate — but Bin Laden was, at last, caught by a single SEAL team, working from intelligence gained without torture, with no loss of civilian life — how can he say with such certainty that justice has been done?
I cannot. It makes me wonder where he thinks justice lies.