Much has already been said on the killing of Bin Laden, and I don’t want to go into September 11, the merits of the war in Afghanistan or the history of the man himself.
The interesting question that comes out here is the ethics of state-sponsored killing. I’m a pacifist, and firmly believe that the state does not have the right to execute its own citizens – capital punishment, to me, is quite simply, evil.
Yet here we have an individual who planned the deaths of thousands of people, and continued to advocate the deaths of as many more. Leaving aside any twisted interpretation of religion, a moral person who believes that killing is wrong should not hesitate to say that Bin Laden was a mass murderer and as much as any other mass murderer (if not more) warranted the moniker of ‘evil’. (In general, murder is certainly evil – though I am a proponent of euthanasia, just to complicate matters.)
So, did Bin Laden deserve to die? Was it ethical to kill him?
This is where the shades of grey really come into play, and I’m not trying to suggest I have an answer – just reflecting on the ethical conundrum I’m left with at the end of this day.
My first thought is that capital punishment is premised on passing the buck. It’s premised on having a higher authority (i.e., ‘god’), and sending the ‘sinner’ for judgement. As an atheist, I don’t believe in god, and hence I believe that capital punishment is a cop-out. Premised on sending the soul on for eternal damnation, if there is no follow-up judgement, it actually rewards the wrong-doer by not having to deal with the long-term consequences of their actions. Sure, it takes their life away, but that’s it – there’s nothing more, and they die in the belief they were right, not to mention possibly a martyr to whatever twisted cause they advocated.
Permanent incarceration though? A punishment that runs the time of capture to the time of their death by natural causes, seems to me at least to be a much more “ultimate” punishment than a quick and easy death. The person who has done the deed has voided their social contract, denied themselves their rights, and so being kept alone, bored, and stuck with their own thoughts and no interaction with others, for the rest of their lives, is a punishment far greater than execution.
So, where does this leave me with an ethical dilemma? Consider what I believe in:
- I’m a pacifist;
- I believe capital punishment is unethical/evil;
- I believe that state sponsored killing is unethical/evil;
- I believe that murder is evil, and mass murderers are also evil.
So – here’s the rub: given all of the above, is there an exception in a situation where a patently evil person continues to elude capture, continues to advocate murder, and as such cannot be permanently incarcerated? In this case, was it ‘OK’ to kill Bin Laden given the only alternative would have been to allow him to escape, and therefore continue to kill?
Life is never black and white, and while I can understand that some might have jumped up and down cheering at the death of Bin Laden, I can’t divorce myself from the ethical dilemma that I have in the situation.
I actually hope I never can, either.