When I read all the accounts of the death of Osama bin Laden, they prompted thoughts of a blog I wrote some weeks ago at the time of the 50th anniversary of the trial and execution of the Nazi war criminal, Adolf Eichmann. As the functionary who masterminded the logistics of the mass murder of millions of Jews in the “Final Solution”, Eichmann was as guilty then as Bin Laden is now. He was given the choice by the Mossad agents who kidnapped him in Buenos Aires, of being summarily executed by them or standing trial in Israel. He chose the latter, making the massive miscalculation that his plea of “only obeying orders” would somehow exonerate him in the eyes of the court.
In his case, justice was seen to be done in the eyes of the world. Interestingly, some of the posts I received for that blog suggested that hanging him (the Israeli court’s judgment) was too swift and merciful a death for Eichmann: that he should be allowed to rot in prison for life, and so on.
In the case of Bin Laden, there have been voices, notably the Archbishop of Canterbury, murmuring against the method of his execution, stating that he should have been taken alive and given a fair trial in the US, not gunned down as a defenceless, unarmed man. Actually, I think that in this case the Americans did the right thing: they and we are engaged in a war on terror, however you like to phrase it, just as deadly as, if different from, the Second World War; war is nasty and in it you sometimes have to act swiftly to avoid the loss of yet more lives; in war, summary justice sometimes has to take the place of the fair trials that civilised countries rightly demand in normal circumstances. This was no normal circumstance.
What would have been the point (if it had been possible) of taking Bin Laden alive and then giving him a long drawn-out trial, with its predictable verdict, followed by life imprisonment, probably in solitary confinement, to protect him from the violent reprisals of other prisoners? He would have become a permanent, living, martyr-figure for his fanatical, suicide-obsessed followers. A swift death and burial at sea were the best options under the circumstances. (One of the reasons the Israelis scattered Eichmann’s ashes at sea was to avoid a burial place becoming a Nazi shrine.)
The US Navy Seals were working in the dark; they did not know how many women and children were in the compound; their operation had to be quick to avoid the likelihood of greater bloodshed if the Pakistani authorities had got involved; they took the reasonable view that their quarry, if they hesitated, would grab a gun (a Kalashnikov was found in the bedroom). As it was, the raid was quick, incisive and successful. We don’t need to gloat, to be triumphal, to rejoice that bin Laden can now “rot in hell” as one American fundamentalist commentator put it. But we can feel relief that a person of such palpably evil influence can now wield it no more. This won’t, of course, bring “closure” to the relations of Bin Laden’s victims; but it will bring a certain peace.
As Christians, we should pray for Bin Laden’s soul; for his (sixth?) wife, wounded in the attack; and also for his 12-year-old daughter, who watched what happened and who helped identify her father’s body.