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.