Osama’s Assassination: The Ethics Elephant in the Room

You are one of the Navy Seals raiding Osama bin Laden’s Pakistan compound. Bin Laden rushes out, with a white flag, shouting “Mercy!”, “I surrender!” and “I’m so, so sorry!” He throws his flag down, puts his hands up, and falls to his knees, pleading for his life. What do you do?

I assume that you shoot him dead. I would. Is this ethically defensible?

There is no  ethical system or analysis under which such a summary execution of an unarmed man, combatant or non-combatant, no matter who he is or what he has done, can be called acceptable. Nor does it conform to the laws of war. Yet it is now becoming apparent that the death of bin Laden was the result of a kill order, the targeting killing of an individual without recourse to capture or trial.

My own belief is that the supposed ethical principle against targeted killings of key leadership in warfare is in fact unethical. National leaders find the “rule” convenient, because it requires that the enemy kill thousands of soldiers and even civilians without going right to the source of the conflict: the decision-makers, the leadership—them. It makes no sense, ethical or otherwise. In the days of ancient warfare, killing the leader was one way to win the battle—think of Harold being shot through the eye during the Battle of Hastings. The most ethical course in warfare is to end the war as quickly as possible, and if that means targeting the other side’s leader for death, go to it. It is ridiculous, and hardly ethical, that the Allies would have left the assassination of Adolf Hitler to his disgusted generals rather than try to accomplish it themselves, since it would have brought a bloody war to a faster conclusion. That is why I am sure that if they could have taken out der Fuhrer themselves, they would have. The Allies targeted the plane that they knew contained Isoroku Yamamoto, the Japanese military mastermind—and have been criticized for doing so, even in recent years.* When a leader’s death is a sufficiently desirable result, targeting him is both reasonable and ethical.

The moral condemnation of bin Laden’s execution/ targeted killing/ assassination is primarily coming from those, like Michael Moore, who never conceded that the Twin Tower/Pentagon bombing were acts of war and believed they were “only” crimes. Moore was braying about this all over CNN this week, insisting that bin Laden deserved a fair trial like Timothy McVeigh or Ted Bundy. What I like about imagining bin Laden abjectly and meekly surrendering is that it brings the ethical issue into the same context whether one regards him as a mass murderer or the leader of an international entity at war with the U.S.

The right conclusion is, I think, that all rules have exceptions, including very valid and important ethical principles, and this is one of them.  It is an extreme case, one that is not a good fit for any universal rules or even clearly delineated exceptions. We have a foreign mass murderer of Americans whose guilt is not in doubt, and who indeed has confessed to the world. We have a fugitive multi-millionaire, who heads an international terrorist organization. We have an individual with fanatic followers, meaning that his capture and trial can reasonably be assumed to entail serious risks to large numbers of people. As long as he is alive, wherever he is alive, however he is alive, he poses a threat to world peace and civilian lives. As all of these things and more, Osama bin Laden transcended standard ethics, and justified a solution outside usual ethical restraints, and thus it is not necessarily wrong to kill him, hands in the air, crying for mercy.

His death cannot be used, however, to justify other trial-free executions, or other summary killings of helpless wrong-doers in battles or raids. Nor is it appropriate for me to use an individual’s approval of bin Laden’s killing to show that their personal insistence on applying the principle “innocent until proven guilty” to Barry Bonds, O.J. Simpson and others widely believed to be guilty of something is inconsistent or hypocritical. An exception is an exception, sui generis and applicable only to itself, neither the basis for a broader principle or the disproof of one.

It is also important to make the distinction between an exception and a rationalization here. When one of the military experts excused the killing of Osama, armed or not, by saying that the Al Qaeda leader might have been wired to explode himself, that was a rationalization, a re-framing of the dilemma designed to eliminate the uncomfortable or inconvenient ethical realities. It is better, safer and more honest to admit that executing bin Laden violates basic and established principles of fairness, respect for life and justice, but that in his very special case, it was the right and responsible thing to do.


* Thanks to reader “Inquiring Mind” for correcting my careless error in the first version of this post, confusing Yamamoto with Togo.

25 thoughts on “Osama’s Assassination: The Ethics Elephant in the Room

  1. When I heard bin Laden was dead, I thought, “Good. It is unfortunate that he won’t stand trial, but if it was between killing him and allowing him to escape and possibly mastermind a new plan to harm us, killing him is acceptable.” Moreso, this version of him being shot is much better than if he was dragged back to America and he was killed within our borders by some revenge-seeking lunatic.

    • Both rationalizations though, right? “It’s not the worst thing”? Generally we shouldn’t justify acts by arguing that they preclude the worst possible scenario. That set of reasons would argue for killing all murderers before trial…especially a maniac like Bundy, who DID escape to kill before he was finally executed.

      • Perhaps all the murderers who unrepentantly released footage claiming responsibility for the murderous acts, as Ol’ “Has bin Laden” did.

  2. Sun Tzu would approve of your reasoning. Sun justified the use of spies, assassinations and other underhanded tactics on the basis that war itself is an expensive and dangerous thing, the burden of which generally falls on the poor and the powerless. If underhanded tactics can end the war sooner (with victory for Sun’s reader, of course), then they are justified. Westerners still maintain some idea of chivalry or fair play when it comes to war.

    On a somewhat related note, it has been speculated that the Allies did not try to kill Hitler because, in the later stages of the war, when it might have been possible to assassinate him, he tended to make bad decisions. If they had been able to kill him, he might have been replaced with a more competent commander who might have prolonged the war. This may just be a legend though.

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  4. I suspect that there would have been much less societal hand-wringing had Osama bin Laden been killed years ago—even if the circumstances of his death were exactly the same. I daresay our killing of bin Laden would have been almost universally applauded in, say, February 2002. The past decade has not changed the fact that bin Laden deserved to die with or without surrender/trial, only that most people today are using different emotions to pass judgment.

    I could respect–but still strongly disagree with–Michael Moore’s crime vs. act of war story if I thought he was sincere. Instead, I’m afraid he’s pandering to a crowd that has confused emotional reaction with thoughtful (ethical) analysis.

  5. Please let me try to put my best foot forward, and keep a
    spirit of civility and friendly inquiry, as I say that my
    whole being — my guts, heart, intuition, and intellect —
    cry out, “No exceptions! Executions, extrajudicial or legal,
    are _wrong_!” I wonder what an fMRI might show, and what
    neuroethics might say, about how people in the U.S.A. and
    elsewhere have such different reactions to what I would call
    a consummately evil and dehumanizing act.

    Please let me also apologize for the length of this comment,
    nevertheless just the starting point for a dialogue with
    lots of ramifications. How do pacifists like me see the
    scale of moral evils in different kinds of violence, and
    when might we consider using certain forms of nonlethal
    force? Also, there’s a way that President Obama might have
    modified his strategy a bit to fit Frances Kamm’s Doctrine
    of Triple Effect (DTE), illustrating what I see as the
    dangers of this intellectually intriguing concept. I’d love
    to join a dialogue going in any or all of these directions.

    It’s curious. You write, “I assume you shoot him dead.”

    And my whole being cries out, “You assume wrong!” While I’m
    not a physicalist, I do recognize that while we’re in this
    world experience and behavior are mediated through the
    brain, so I wonder what an fMRI or the like would show for
    people who have these radically different intuitions.

    An interesting point is that some people say, “I know how
    good I feel about Osama bin Laden’s death, but still, we
    really should have followed the rules.” To me, “I feel sad,
    outraged, and maybe something of a stranger in my own native
    country.” My gut and heart and my ethics aren’t in tension:
    gratification would be seeing him captured, humanly treated
    and deftly interrogated in a culturally sensitive way,
    fairly tried, and imprisoned under very secure but humane
    conditions for the rest of his natural life. And as a Jew,
    I’d say the same for Hitler or Eichmann, having opposed the
    latter’s execution almost 50 years ago with much the same
    feeling I have now — and the same would go for Hitler, if
    he had been captured.

    Your scenario merely amplifies my reaction to the real
    scenario, where some swift application of nonlethal but
    incapacitating force to be sure Osama doesn’t grab a firearm
    or set off a bomb would be the moral choice, and maybe
    something I could do as a pacifist who may be absolutely
    nonkilling rather than nonviolent in an extreme situation.
    And if I could use that force to subdue him, I should also
    be willing to use it to prevent anyone from killing him.

    Intellectually, my first argument would be purely
    deontological: “Your position destroys the inviolability of
    human life as applied to a harmless, subdued, or subduable
    person!” And I wouldn’t fire that bullet to save the whole
    universe. More prosaically, firing it would destroy my
    humanity, my country’s Constitution (including what I regard
    as a proper interpretation of the Eighth Amendment even if
    we regard his guilt, like Eichmann’s, as absolutely
    established), and the Geneva Conventions, in order to save

    It would be my Pico della Mirandola moment, my moment to
    exercise the human prerogative of deciding what kind of
    creature I want to be. Here the categorical imperative for
    me is that humans should internalize a rule some other
    species of mammals seem to exhibit: that one does not kill a
    subdued or subduable member of one’s own species.

    That’s the core of my position, which is absolutist. I could
    also take a rule-consequentialist position on seductive
    “exceptions” by referring you to Robespierre, who resigned
    as a judge rather than impose a death sentence (Bravo!) and
    eloquently argued for abolition in 1791. But in January
    1793, he demanded that Louis XVI be guillotined as the one
    exception to the rule, while Tom Paine, one of the leading
    proponents of trying “Louis Capet” and holding him to account
    for the crimes of the monarchy Paine so loathed in England or
    France or elsewhere, spoke against his execution with the
    same fervor and almost himself became one of the thousands
    of other “exceptions” that followed (including, of course,
    Robespierre himself).

    Will killing Osama really make his followers disappear, as
    opposed to outraged and thirsty for revenge? Will there
    really be no more Osamas waiting in the wings, maybe with
    more just causes, and with this “exceptional” murder of
    Osama as proof that everything is relative, so it’s only a
    question of “Who assassinates whom?”

    Now for the laws of war, which, of course, even under what I
    consider the perverse doctrines of “targeted killings” now
    being promoted, wouldn’t let you kill someone you know is
    surrendering in good faith (as you laudably note). I agree
    with part of your logic, but it leads me in a radically
    different direction.

    True, leaders of state or nonstate “warmaking” machines
    shouldn’t enjoy impunity, but that doesn’t have to mean
    killing them: at the same time, we should also strive to
    reduce the general lethality of war for everyone involved.
    Thus I’d favor a policy of “targeted capture” for leaders,
    call it genteel kidnapping, and an emphasis on more
    discriminating use of force favoring increasingly
    sophisticated nonlethal weapons, and a general preference
    for capture or incapacitation (while minimizing permanent
    harm) rather than killing.

    While I consider the assassination of Admiral Yamamoto as an
    ignoble deed and a horrible precedent, I’d have no problem
    at all with forcing his plane down safely on some island in
    our control (hypothetically assuming it can be pulled off
    with him coming out alive and well in our custody), or in
    leaving him at large to serve later on as an advocate for a
    just peace. Clever stratagems and ruses that don’t involve
    killing people, especially unarmed people who can be subdued
    and captured or are already prisoners, I’d see as a
    humanizing element in war, tending to reduce its lethality.

    Nonlethal “decapitation” by capture (or kidnapping, as the
    other side may call it) seems to me attractive. Normally it
    would be like ordinary POW status, or like the fate of some
    noble captives in medieval Europe who enjoyed decent and
    even lavish lifestyles while “guests” of their enemies. But
    war crimes trials and less pleasant (although humane)
    accommodations might be a good deterrent for leaders who
    should reasonably know that they are violating international
    humanitarian law. Maybe the International Criminal Court
    could decide what is “reasonable.”

    Again, I apologize for my length, and hope I’ve kept
    friendly and respectful, and maybe invited more dialogue.

    • Wonderful post. (And the Comment of the Day, Week, Month, and Year, as far as I am concerned.)

      I don’t agree with absolutism; I think it is demonstrably and dangerously imaginary when applied to extreme real world situations. I also think it is essential to have sincere, dedicated, smart and educated people who are absolutists, as ballast against the purely pragmatic who would gut ethical values in the interest on non-ethical considerations every time.

      My entire difference with your comment, which is not too long because this is an epic issue, is in your statement, “And I wouldn’t fire that bullet to save the whole universe.” I’m proud of you for saying that: it shows the integrity of your position. I think it also shows the historic and tragic weakness of formal and theoretical ethics. Ethically, you HAVE to fire that bullet to save the universe. Choosing to lose the universe in fealty to a principle is illogical, unreasonable, irresponsible and therefore unethical. It is also, ultimately, cowardly and arrogant. (And I am not saying that you are these things, because I am confident that if you really had that choice, “fairness” to an unarmed killer or saving millions, you would indeed fire that gun.)

      But your argument has to be made, and made every time we do act in the gray area of exceptions to core ethical principles, to make sure that the exceptions don’t corrupt the rules.

      • Thank you, Jack, for a welcome to Ethics Alarms truly
        breathtaking in its hospitality, generosity, and thoughtfulness!
        Of course, I thank you also for your original article, written
        with a compelling honesty and directness that provided the basis
        for my reply. Further, your gracious response to my absolutist
        position forced me to delve more deeply into its ultimate
        spiritual grounding, leading to an insight I share below.

        Your position for me exemplifies the fine tradition of threshold
        deontology, much in the spirit of Michael Walzer’s writings on
        _Just and Unjust Wars_, “supreme emergency,” and the concept of
        “dirty hands.” Threshold deontology holds that one must observe
        duties and principles such as not torturing or killing a prisoner
        even if the cost is high, and indeed right up to the threshold or
        brink of catastrophe. Only in this extreme situation, to avert
        catastrophe, will you reluctantly make an exception.

        And after you’d fired that bullet to kill Osama bin Laden despite
        his surrender, I wouldn’t see you as celebrating or proudly
        proclaiming “Mission accomplished!” Rather, in Walzer’s words,
        you would lower your weapon and realize that you had “dirty
        hands” even though firing that bullet was the necessary and
        responsible choice as you saw it.

        This doesn’t mean that you would have to turn yourself in as a
        war criminal, but you might be very happy _not_ to be offered a
        medal for your part in the mission. And, as very refreshingly
        discussed in your original article, you wouldn’t resort to
        rationalizations: “Well, Osama’s flag of surrender was a bit
        dusty, so I couldn’t tell if it matched the regulation shade of
        white in my field manual on the Geneva Conventions.”

        Hoping that I’ve fairly understood your position, I’ll turn to a
        point about my absolutism only revealed as I grappled with your
        words. Refusing to “save the universe” simply for the sake of an
        abstract principle would seem a form of nihilism, or as you say,
        “ultimately, cowardly and arrogant.” Certain ethicists would
        speak more affably of “squeamishness.”

        Rather, my absolutism must seek some deeper grounding that goes
        beyond any mere rule, however worthy and inviolable: the
        grounding of a loving Creator Who is the source both of that rule
        and of the visible universe teetering on the brink of
        catastrophe. In the extreme scenarios we’re discussing, my
        refusal to kill Osama bin Laden must flow not from some smug
        sense of moral purity, but from that which is called _chesed_ in
        Hebrew, _agape_ in Greek, and _caritas_ in Latin: a sense of
        universal love and compassion which embraces all, and stems
        ultimately from the Creator of all.

        And this love must be mingled with dread and trembling at the
        evil — however unintended! — which I am reluctantly allowing to
        be unleashed on the universe. I must squarely face the tragic
        cnnsequences of my decision not to shoot and feel a sense of
        sadness and regret that eats to my very bones, even whlle
        recognizing that for me there was no other way.

        In short, a lesson of our exchange for me as an absolutist is
        that in these extreme situations, we must have the courage and
        humility to see that whichever horn of the dilemma we ultimately
        grasp, there is really no way of keeping our hands clean.

  6. Jack — You seem to make your case for the exception in this extreme case based on a utilitarian calculus. Why not the same exception for the waterboarding of KSM then (clearly waterboarding is more gentle than a bullet through the eye)? What about waterboarding (or even more extreme measures) in the ticking time bomb scenario?

    • No, it is not based on any broad ethical principle at all, though utilitarianism would be the closest. It is an exception, as the Ethics Incompleteness Theorem dictates: some situations have to be considered and weighed in their own unique context. If I rely on utilitarianism, then we have a precedent that goes too far, into very ethically dangerous territory. The utilitarian principle still holds that it is better for all if we are fair and merciful and give even the most heinous killers, political or otherwise, the benefit of a fair trial. This case is off the grid—the principle doesn’t work for bin Laden, so we don’t use it—in fact, we act contrary to it. And once its over, we reaffirm the basic ethical principles that still apply 99.999% of the time.

      That reasoning applies to torture too. The fact that we might have to torture the one person who can tell us how to kind the nuclear bomb set to destroy the West Coast in 12 hours doesn’t mean that torture isn’t absolutely wrong—it just means that that there are no true absolutes.

  7. His death cannot be used, however, to justify other trial-free executions, or other summary killings of helpless wrong-doers in battles or raids.

    In my view, killing Bin Laden is no different than killing a murder suspect who fled the jurisdiction. See the concept of an outlaw .

  8. Rules ? What rules? These so called rules are made up by people who have no intention of going into harms way to make them feel better about sending others to do so. Osama brought this on himself when he attacked us. If he didnt think we would try to hunt him down and kill him then he was an idiot.
    People say ” Violence doesnt solve anything.” Ive always thought that was the dumbest thing I have ever heard. Violence solves EVERYTHING. That doesnt mean you should use violence to solve every problem but trust me I have had people harrass me both physically and verbally and it stopped the second they saw that I was willing to cause them severe physical pain.

    As to Margo Schulter’s comment. I cant argue with it as her position is that she would never use violence. As to forcing Yamamoto’s plane down. They did force it down. They did so by putting big holes in it.

  9. I think alot of questionable ethical behavior can be boiled down to one “simple” question:

    Is this a slippery slope, or is this actually a one-off event?

    Moral absolutism would never get to this question and strict utilitarianism wouldn’t care. For everyone else, how you answer this question for any situation pretty much determines your ethical judgment on said situation.

    • Bingo. That’s why, when there is the need for a true exception, the temptation has to be resisted to use it for generalizations, precedents, proofs or disproofs. The slippery slope is an important consideration, but there are ways to eliminate, or greatly reduce the risks of, the slip.

        • You raise an interesting question, focusing me on the lack of consistent standards in the Cotd, which actually handicaps those, like you,who craft such generally interesting and astute comments that I am less often shocked into acknowledgment mode. I’m aware of the bias, and I promise: I’m working on it.

          • I actually approve of the open ended Cotd format. I never know whether it’s going to be an insane rant picked apart, an extremely detailed and well reasoned post (whether agreed with or disagreed with), a pithy comment that boils a complicated issue into a simple truth (or falsehood), or something like Andrew Sullivan’s Yglesias award misnomer.

            That said, I have specifically tailored a few comments with Cotd in mind. Maybe I added a little more punch to a point or rewrote a comment to be context independent (like above). One of these days…

        • I was kinda hoping Jack would start keeping score, or a tally of the CotD’s. He could even call it… “The Scoreboard”!

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