Comment of the Day: “Osama’s Assassination: The Ethics Elephant in the Room”

First time commenter Margo Schulter delivers a powerful, passionate and eloquent absolutist rebuttal to my post asserting an ethical defense of Osama bin Laden’s targeted killing/assassination/execution by U.S. military personnel. My immediate response to her can be found in the comments to the original post here; I don’t want to re-post it with this post because Margo’s thoughtful comment should be read and thought about prior to considering my rebuttal. Ethics Alarms is blessed with many sharp and persuasive comments, and this is one of the finest. In the grand tradition of absolutism, her answer to my question about firing the bullet that would kill an unarmed and submissive Osama  is “I wouldn’t fire that bullet to save the whole universe.” And she explains why:

“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 MRI 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 MRI 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 them.

“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.”

One thought on “Comment of the Day: “Osama’s Assassination: The Ethics Elephant in the Room”

  1. Thanks to Margo for the comment and thanks to EthicsAlarms for publishing it. I think the argument is simple: If there’s such a thing as a just war–which Margo would deny, I think–then she is wrong. If all war is wrong, then she is right.

    I believe there is such a thing as a just war, but I don’t think it could be proven to an absolute pacifist.

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