Repellent views of bin Laden's death

Andrew Sullivan objects to the moral dimension in my observation that there’s a sacrificial logic behind the killing of bin Laden. He calls it ‘repellent’ – a strong word that made me think. Luckily for me, I’ve been with some American journalists these last few days and so could ask.

The Dish argues that bin Laden’s killing was justified as an act of war. Well, I’d take issue with the war on terror notion. Pragmatically, it’s unwise, as it inherently escalates the troubles – to borrow a euphemism from this side of the Atlantic. Philosophically, I don’t think it stacks up as I can make no sense of the view that bin Laden’s atrocities were acts of war, for all their monstrous scale. He was a terrorist.

That said, the killing could still be regarded as a just act – not in a criminal justice sense, but in a sacrificial sense. After all, blood sacrifice was a means of achieving justice in the religious setting, as with a death, the moral order is restored. That’s Lacquer’s point about the death penalty, and it still seems to me that bin Laden’s killing has achieved precisely that: a sense of a moral order restored.

But it’s really the word ‘repellent’ that bothered me. It carries emotional force, and at the wrong end of it, I felt it, though one of the journalists was able to help me out.

He’d be with Sullivan on the death penalty, namely against. But still, he told me that he involuntarily felt a sense of pride when Obama stood and, in a dignified manner, declared the job well done. There was something about the ethic of perseverance, as well as sense of justice, that he responded to.

He continued: this is an emotional response, deeply connected to knowing oneself as American. He drew a parallel with the emotional response Britons have to royalty: it looks nuts, if colourful, from a republican viewpoint. And yet, kings and crowns, bands and processions, are in the British DNA and so tells us something about who we are, because it’s how we do things. Equivalents elsewhere might be the principle of laïcité in France. Hence banning the burka feels right to the majority there, aside from the moral debate.

So I think the Dish’s objection is, fundamentally, a perspectival one. It exemplifies how people see the world in radically different ways because of who they are. That’s not to say there’s no moral debate to be had. Manifestly, there is. But it is to point to the parallel issue, of how, with such pluralism, we live together.

Understanding helps.