Tom Wright on Osama Bin Laden

Tom Wright has written a fascinating reflection on the killing of Osama Bin Laden, and he has given permission for me to post:

Consider the following scenario. A group of IRA terrorists carry out a bombing raid in London. People are killed and wounded. The group escapes, first to Ireland, then to the United States, where they disappear into the sympathetic hinterland of a country where IRA leaders have in the past been welcomed at the White House. Britain cannot extradite them, because of the gross imbalance of the relevant treaty. So far, this is not far from the truth.

But now imagine that the British government, seeing the murderers escape justice, sends an aircraft carrier (always supposing we’ve still got any) to the Nova Scotia coast. From there, unannounced, two helicopters fly in under the radar to the Boston suburb where the terrorists are holed up. They carry out a daring raid, killing the (unarmed) leaders and making their escape. Westminster celebrates; Washington is furious.

What’s the difference between this and the recent events in Pakistan? Answer: American exceptionalism. America is allowed to do it, but the rest of us are not. By what right? Who says?

Consider another fictive scenario. Gangsters are preying on a small mid-western town. The sheriff and his deputies are spineless; law and order have failed. So the hero puts on a mask, acts ‘extra-legally’, performs the necessary redemptive violence (i.e. kills the bad guys), and returns to ordinary life, earning the undying gratitude of the local townsfolk, sheriff included. This is the plot of a thousand movies, comic-book strips, and TV shows: Captain America, the Lone Ranger, and (upgraded to hi-tech) Superman. The masked hero saves the world.

Films and comics with this plot-line have been named as favourites by most Presidents, as Robert Jewett and John Shelton Lawrence pointed out inThe Myth of the American Superhero (2002) and Captain America and the Crusade Against Evil (2004). The main reason President Obama has been cheered to the echo across the US, even by his bitter opponents, is not simply the fully comprehensible sense of closure a decade after the horrible, wicked actions of September 11 2001. Underneath that, he has just enacted one of America’s most powerful myths.

Perhaps the myth was necessary in the days of the Wild West, of isolated frontier towns and roaming gangs. But it legitimizes a form of vigilantism, of taking the law into one’s own hands, which provides ‘justice’ only of the crudest sort. In the present case, the ‘hero’ fired a lot of stray bullets in Iraq and Afghanistan before he got it right. What’s more, such actions invite retaliation. They only ‘work’ because the hero can shoot better than the villain; but the villain’s friends may decide on vengeance. Proper justice is designed precisely to outflank such escalation.

Of course, ‘proper justice’ is hard to come by internationally. America regularly casts the UN (and the International Criminal Court) as the hapless sheriff, and so continues to play the world’s undercover policeman. The UK has gone along for the ride. What will we do when new superpowers arise and try the same trick on us? And what has any of this to do with something most Americans also believe, that the God of ultimate justice and truth was fully and finally revealed in the crucified Jesus of Nazareth, who taught people to love their enemies, and warned that those who take the sword will perish by the sword?


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28 thoughts on “Tom Wright on Osama Bin Laden”

  1. This hits the nail on the head!

    I’m reminded of the ‘taking out’ by UK special forces of three IRA operatives in Gibraltar in 1988.

  2. I was pondering this this morning when reading Romans 12:
    17 Do not repay anyone evil for evil. Be careful to do what is right in the eyes of everyone. 18 If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone. 19 Do not take revenge, my dear friends, but leave room for God’s wrath, for it is written: “It is mine to avenge; I will repay,”[d] says the Lord. 20 On the contrary:
    “If your enemy is hungry, feed him;
    if he is thirsty, give him something to drink.
    In doing this, you will heap burning coals on his head.”[e]
    21 Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.

  3. Thanks Maureen. Historically (in the tradition of Christian reading of these texts) there have been big questions raised about whether this is personal or political, or indeed whether we can or should distinguish between these, and how respect for the individual relates to the issue of the punishment of wrongdoing–which of course Paul moves on to in the next chapter.

  4. This is a fascinating and (as usual) eloquent response from Tom Wright, many thanks for him for allowing you to share it. American ‘exceptionalism’ is one of the biggest problems of our day when it come to global security, morality and this ‘war’ against an ideology and not a physical enemy.

    That, and the fact that they claim to be ‘Christian’ in their actions, yet it seems to be the only way celebrating the death of an enemy in such a fashion is to claim ‘exception’ from following Jesus in that particular moment. Which is of course not very Jesus-like.

  5. Yes – with the one problem that the American exceptionalist vigilantes will retort that ‘proper justice’ in this case probably would not ‘outflank such escalation’, because had OBL been captured alive and put on trial, there would have been all sorts of hostage-taking and other threats, designed to get him freed. I’m not saying they’re morally right, but I suspect that thought has to be countered.

  6. I like this piece, and have wondered today about Wright’s final paragraph. I think the theological underpinning of the typical US position shouldn’t be overlooked. It is very real, and destructive. Reinhold Niebuhr’s influence in particular is potent in much of what Obama and Bush Jnr. have said over the past few days. The sense that the sinfulness of the collective necessitates coercive politics, and the collusion of the US Church in that, has had huge ramifications not just in terms of the Amercan as hero but, worse, for the belief that the US government enacts the divine will. It is this surely that enables some Americans, perhaps most, to hold together the Christian story and their role as international policeman: their political power, “properly” ordered around “justice”, is a divine force in the world. Niebuhr’s legacy is thoroughly disturbing. Both Bush and Obama have acknowledged Niebuhr’s legacy publicly, as have theologians critical of it – e.g. Stanley Hauerwas, and have pointed to his pervasive theology as indicative of the importance of religious influence in politics. Perhaps this is a good reason for us to do good theology?

  7. But here’s the problem (from Obama’s perspective). The information confirms where Bin Laden is, but Obama decides not to go after him, lets say because of the reasons laid out above. But what if by doing so, he has placed countless American lives at risk? Imagine if it ever leaked that Obama had passed on the opportunity to take him out. He would be held responsible for any lives lost on Bin Laden/ al Quaeda’s account. Ultimately, the ideal situation would be that the man had been captured and put on trial, however the accounts coming out about how the operation progressed are foggy, and it is easy to say what should have happened, especially when you weren’t present. But i do feel disappointed. Obama is really riding the wave of this thing and i think many of us thought that in him we had a president who would seek to transcend business as usual. In the short term these events have severely heightened tensions on all sides. A way to peace must be found. Why, in the decade since 9/11 has there been no talk of a mediation between the west and extreme Islam. The fact is the West has given these people just cause to hate us. I was reading a news report today about US drones in Pakistani tribal areas, killing both Taliban and civilians. This is unacceptable, and illustrates that we are just as guilty of making the world a darker more violent place, as they are. Tit for tat can never work, as seen by the Palestinian Israeli conflict.
    Sorry i don’t feel i’ve been entirely clear. I totally agree with Tom Wright but we also have to be conscious of the real world. You simply can not implement authentic Christianity into government, it would never work and that is not what Jesus sought to accomplish. Heckling from the side is no use either. All we can do is live our own lives, true to our convictions, and work for peace.

  8. One difference here is that it appears that the Pakistani Goverment were supportive of this operation, even though they wern’t told the details. Had they not , I am sure they would have made sa big fuss but no , they sound quite happy about having Bin Laden out of the way.

    Another more serious story

    A young lad went into a gas station with a gun. He saw the price of gas had just gone up so he went to the proprietor and demanded he reduce the price. The youn lad took out his weapon and pointed it to the proprietor and said “Fill my car up with gas or else!”. When the proprietor refused, he shot and killed the propretor ,went and filled his car up and drove away paying nothing. When a bystander challenged him, he pointed the gun at the bystander who then raised his hands in surrender and dropped the challenge

    A familiar story?

  9. Bishop Tom is correct yet again; I’ve always believed the USA was wrong to adhere to the “one rule for you, one rule for me” in the area of extradition especially with regard to “their close fiend and ally” the UK; the price of continued support for USA should be a proper extradition treaty

  10. Interesting article leaves the question, what is justice in this world. When acts of murder are committed… What is the correct way of responding, by loving your enemies? Is that justice, is it enough!

    Will someone like Osama be offered redemption, meet Jesus or be somewhere else?

    What is justice? The bible says to act justly and love mercy. What then shall be justice?

  11. Mike (Leyden) I am real interested in your comments on Niebuhr. Can you say more? Did you read Richard Harries’ defence of him in the recent Grove Ethics booklet? I thought he made some interesting points…

  12. It’s naive to contemplate, with any seriousness, the Trial of Osama Bin Laden. Just consider the increased security threat, the protracted trial that would allow Bin Laden the time to rally his supporters, gain new ones, and have an increased profile beyond his dreams. How could such a trial be conducted fairly? Could anyone honestly approach the subject with an unbiased view? Giving him such a spotlight would play right into his hands. It would make the current media coverage seem miniscule.

    Comparisons to the IRA are also futile. The IRA was not a global threat, it’s members were not inclined to blow themselves up on public transport, and its secondary aim was to bring the British Government to the negotiating table, which it eventually achieved. Violent and dangerous of course, but this is not the same kind of terrorism as perpetrated by Bin Laden and Co. who do not look to negotiate and have much more extreme aims.

  13. These theological reflections are very good. Tom usually is, and that helps the rest of us to think at that level. Fine. But it does come down to practicalities – the situation was and is a moral mess. There was never going to be a neat and tidy way of sorting it all out. I suggest that what happened was the lesser of at least two evils. I’d be very interested in any practical alternatives from anyone, because in the midst of all the ‘unease’ nobody has yet come up with a workable alternative.

  14. Very interesting; some dilemmas that are very hard to know how to navigate. This might seem like a silly tangent, but comic book mythology has some very fine gradations to it that are a bit relevant. Superman always obeys the law, and will never kill – he always hands baddies over to the authorities. Batman disobeys the law, and will badly beat people up, but never kills anyone. Superman regards Batman’s methods as beyond the pale. Judge Dredd, a British comic book creation, will kill, maim, without mercy or hesitation, but always obeys and serves the law and protects the population at large. Neither Batman nor Superman approve of Judge Dredd! Silly, but interesting to me at least.

    An interesting legal view is the emerging US philosophy of law. Traditionally, the view was that a country believed it’s own law universally applied, but could only be enforced within it’s own jurisdiction. With this kind of action, and with Guantanamo, the concept of ignoring your own law outside your borders arises, which is rather odd. Other countries of course do it, but have the decency to pretend they don’t 🙂

  15. Sure Ian, no problem (though I confess I have not read Harries’ latest on Niebuhr, I have read other things in the past). Obama is particularly famous for his love of Niebuhr, but he is not the only one – The New York Review of books suggested that Niebuhr influenced George W Bush’s foreign policy also (I think, but don’t remember exactly, Jimmy Carter also expressed a distinct like for him). Obama did what has now become a fairly famous interview with the New York Times in May 2009 in which the Niebuhrian influence was directly addressed by the interviewer (I think it was David Brooks), and if I remember rightly it was in relation to issues surrounding foreign policy. [Pew Research has a good page on this if you want to know a bit more:

    The book I have in mind for suggesting that Niebuhr’s specter is looming behind US politics’ sense of the heroic is his “Moral Man and Immoral Society”. Here Niebuhr makes the case that the pervasiveness of human sin means it is hard for groups to consider the concerns of others (groups or individuals) and that politics is necessary to regulate justice (which equates to consistent treatment of all by the political powers). Religion (the best form of which is Christianity because of its accuracy if nothing else) helps to ensure that justice is fair, and the duty of the church is to make sure the political power does what it can for the sake of justice. The effect in USA has been that church and govt. have been very close. Niebuhr thinks coercion is a significant use of political power – even forceful coercion – such that the govt. has almost a divine duty to enact justice. Of course, and Wright acknoledges this, how we define justuce matter here. Youcan perhaps begin to see how this can be and I suggest has been played out in US foreign policy.

  16. That’s what I thought and what Richard Harries says. It sounds good as far as it goes…but the key question is how the state decides what is just. If it looks to the Scriptural ideas of justice, all well and good, but that would include eg looking after the poor. The sociological question is why does US culture not see this as a matter of justice. I think the roots of that are in its foundation.

  17. I think you are correct about that, Ian. I am, on the whole, critical of Niebuhr’s influence. What he theologically justifies is a kind of self-projectionism that leads to the kind of US self-privilege that Bishop Tom talks about. It also means that, gven the emphasis on political power, it is politicians who decide on justice issues. It’s precisely what the likes of Stanley Hauerwas have criticised the US govt. about, and, more significantly, what he has criticised the church about – i.e. for having lost its prophetic voice to critique the govt. when it fails to uphold proper issues of justice. The church, orientated properly toward the gospel, has a particular role in this regard.

    Perhaps I might venture, in response to Rev Tony, that the theological reflections have a part to play as they inform and shape the way we think about what to do. I am concerned about, for example, the way justice and revenge have been a bit confused in the talk about bin Laden’s death (for some tentative reflections you could look at Justice is usually dispensed by a court: bin Laden was never tried, except by a US marksman, and the court meeting in Obama’s Oval Office when the order was given. I would have preferred to see him arrested and tried. Now I agree that it might not have been possible – we don’t know what happened and likely never will – but one of the things that comes out of Bishop Tom’s reflections for me is that we must agree on proper processes of justice if we are to pursue it as a common goal.

  18. This is a great and thought-provoking discussion, from Bishop Tom’s article on. Thank you. @Michael Leyden: “Justice is usually dispensed by a court: bin Laden was never tried” – provoked me to speculate whether a more Christian approach, though clearly deficient in some respects, would have been to have tried bin Laden in an international (or national) court of law in absentia preemptively. One problem would have been that the US doesn’t recognise the ICC, and of course that the death penalty (which was wanted) is not available to it – which would lead to all the same complications had he been arrested and not killed. And, OK, not being present to defend yourself is a major denial of justice – though perhaps less so than summary targeted assassination.

  19. What justification did Osama have for murdering 3,000 (approximate count) on 9/11/2001? As a nation, we better do something about such attacks as were launched by Osama. And what we did was appropriate in every way.

  20. Ray, the answer is clearly: none. But one important thing Tom Wright points out is that you cannot take the killing of bin Laden in isolation. I wonder what question would be asked of US policy by the relatives of at least tens, more likely hundreds, of thousands of civilians killed in Iraq and Afghanistan? Were they justified as part of the question for ‘justice’?

    It has been calculated that, in terms of the total cost of the conflict, the killing of each member of Al Qaeda has cost $12 billion. Just pause and reflect on that figure. $12 billion. How could that money have transformed the region and evaporated all support for terrorism?

    And what about the comparison with Hitler. Even his henchmen were given the process of Nuremberg. Is Bin Laden worse than Hitler? Was 9/11 worse than the Holocaust and the Second World War?

    The action was appropriate ‘in every way’? Really?

  21. I’m sorry, I have not read all the previous comments, so if this is repetitious, I crave your forgiveness.
    I can’t really see the point of having brought bin Laden to trial. As far as I understand, he never professed innocence, rather rejoicing in his achievements and making no attempt to deny them, so a plea of “not guilty” would have been unlikely. The only result of a trial would have been a protracted legal performance with, as has been noted before, the danger of hostage taking etc. The only “extra” which a trial would have brought to the party would have been the sentence.
    As to America’s unilateral action, the degree of evil involved was so great that it would have been very risky to entrust the operation to an essentially non trustworthy regime. True, everything may have gone off well, but there would always have been a severe doubt. As to bin Laden’s killing. Although to be mourned, it may have been the best alternative both for the world and for bin Laden himself. It protected the world from further acts of extreme evil by the man, had he escaped and also protected himself from the temptation to commit them.
    As I see it, the real sadness is in the rejoicing at the death of bin Laden. There could, perhaps be a tacit feeling of relief, but never, never an open rejoicing. There should always be sadness over the death of even the worst of sinners: there goes a wasted life which could, under different circumstances, have been beautiful for God.

  22. Well considering the UK is the hub and haven of terrorist activity the world over…that some extremist Arab groups too unpalatable to speak on home soil are protected by English law…when you the West are through with your sermonizing remember to close the door and shut up – we in Africa always bear the brunt

  23. I fully disagree with Tom’s Wright scenarios and his concluding statement.
    People appear to have short memories and do not remember the death and destruction following the bomb attacks in New York, Bali, Madrid and London. Additionally, OBL has been instrumental in setting up organisations which have killed untold thousands of fellow Muslims in a number of Middle Eastern and Far Eastern countries. The OBL organisation was planning more attacks which would have resulted in further loss of life.
    The USA had declared war on OBL and his fellow fanatics and for very good and justifiable reasons. Now that he has been taken from the world ( eye for eye, tooth for tooth, etc)this planet is definitely better off without this monster.
    It is preposterous to suggest that OBL should have been captured and be tried in a court of law – a pity that he did not bestow this opportunity to the thousands he killed. There are more references in God’s Word relating to justice and righteousness than to love and mercy. Our Lord Jesus himself will judge all when we will stand before Him and knowing my Lord and Saviour, I think that He will not show any mercy to those who committed mass murder, worshipped other gods and completely denied the existence of the Son of God.

  24. Dear Stephen, I think many in the UK would agree with you there. It is odd that the Government has not acted more quickly, and it has been criticised for it. But Government action is clumsy; it has now clamped down on non-EU members studying, particularly for religious reasons, and this means it is harder for Christian theological colleges to work with the churches in developing countries.

    Johannes, I think your language gives you away! Christian ethics is not based on an eye for eye, tooth for tooth, and I would not support any policy which chose to treat terrorists as they have treated me. It is also worth reflecting what mercy Jesus might or might not show to those of us who live in luxury while the hungry around the world cry out for justice. See my other entry on justice according to Amos.

  25. My take on it….Throughout the Bible our most just God has assisted in the killing of people who were the “enemy”. Often He assisted others in the killing of evil people in ways that made it obvious to His people that He was the one who caused the enemy to be killed and allowed it.

    God wants all to repent and come to His Son Jesus however, God also tells us that not all will. He tells us there is evil and to pray for others and to live by our example according to His example. He wants us to love others but also take a stand against evil and do what we can to stop it, even at the cost of death to people who spread it or prey upon others with their evil way with no intention of stopping. There is killing and there is murder. Killing is just….murder is not just. OBL murdered innocent people as his purpose and his goal which is evil plain and simple. The USA killed him in turn to protect our country and others from his evil. That doesn’t mean there won’t be more who follow in OBL footsteps.
    Yes, it is sad and true that in war as well, innocent people are killed, even children. What can be said about that? Without making light of the tragedy of this, innocent people die while sleeping, riding as passengers in cars and airplanes…you get the idea. We can’t possibly keep people from death and we leave it to God to be the determining decision maker of who will or will not die as a consequence.

    Not all death is sad. Some death is glorious!

    Psalm 144:1 Praise be to the Lord my rock, who trains my hands for war, my fingers for battle.


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