Religious Sentiment on the Killing of bin Laden

Rev. Michael P. Orsi
By Rev. Michael P. Orsi | May 18, 2011 | 4:01 AM EDT

Thus far, America’s religious leaders have failed to adequately inform the nation’s conscience on a proper sentiment regarding the killing of Osama bin Laden. For the most part, pastors, rabbis and imams avoided the topic during the weekend services following the event.

The few who did speak to the issue expressed either feelings of joy because they deemed it to be a victory over evil or a sense of peace because they felt that justice had at long last been served. Some even expressed disgust at assassination believing it to be inhuman and illegal. The majority who did not speak admitted to being conflicted and confused as to what a proper religious sentiment should be.            

America is decidedly a religious nation. If the nation’s houses of worship do not respond to bin Laden’s killing they will lose their voice in the national debate. This is an eminently teachable moment. It must be salvaged because it can be used as a reference for similar government activities in the future. And, mutatis mutandis it may be used for cases involving capital punishment. 

Although most Americans were understandably excited when President Obama announced bin Laden’s death, it was soon recognized, upon more sober reflection, that it needed some moral contextualization. The White House’s mixed messages regarding circumstances that led to bin Laden’s killing by the Navy SEALs is perhaps indicative of ethical qualms as to how he was brought down.

In any case, joy is certainly not the emotion that humans should feel at the execution of one of their fellow creatures. Even in the case of a mass murderer! If anything, there should be a sense of sadness as to what made this action necessary.

The need to avenge a wrong speaks to a basic instinct in our human psyche. However, if it is motivated by hatred it lessens our perception of the dignity of the perpetrator of the crime, and it compromises our own humanity. The sense of glee at another person’s demise can make the avenger and the wrong doer strange bed-fellows in their mutual hatred. This does not preclude a sense of satisfaction that evil has been extirpated.           

Those who would justly explain Osama’s killing under the umbrella of the Just War Theory by claiming self-defense may have legal grounds upon which to stand. However, this leaves them open to claims that other means could have been used to obtain justice, for example, life imprisonment.

These concerns are always legitimate and deserve a fair hearing. It must be remembered, however, that in the Just War Theory a legitimate authority must make these life and death decisions. In this case, President Obama weighed the practical and political advantages of taking bin Laden dead or alive. He legally opted for the former.           

What, for the most part, has unfortunately failed to emerge as a legitimate rationale for killing bin Laden is the Theory of Retribution. Retribution is connected to justice. It has the sense of a need for balancing the scales of justice upset by the crime. This is a metaphysical concept that is unfortunately no longer understood or appreciated in contemporary society.

It should be rediscovered since it affects a healthy sense of punishment. It indicates a need to restore justice to society as a whole and removes the animus of individual persons toward the criminal. When retribution is served, humans can experience a legitimate sense of relief because a debt to humanity has been paid and right order restored.          

A sense of retribution frees the religious person to truly accept God’s will to love our neighbor and frees us to pray for the soul of the criminal. After all, God wants all of us to be saved even Osama bin Laden.