The Death of Osama bin Laden

The death of Osama bin Laden did not end the war against jihadism, a war bin Laden had declared against the United States in a 1996 fatwa that mandated the killing of Americans wherever they could be targeted. But it did take one key leader of jihadist Islam off the global strategic chessboard.

The death of Osama bin Laden did not end the civil war within Islam over the proper interpretation of Islamic law and the right relationship of Muslims to those who are “other.” But it did continue the dymythologization of bin Laden and his alleged invincibility, a myth that was no minor factor in his faction’s power within that intra-Islamic struggle, which long ago spilled out of the House of Islam to shake the rest of the world.

The death of Osama bin Laden did not cure the social and political pathologies of the Arab Islamic world. But it did remove one obstacle to those pathologies being addressed by the democrats within 2011’s “Arab Spring.”

The death of Osama bin Laden did not resolve the intellectual dilemma of Islam in its confrontation with modern science and modern methods of reading ancient texts. But it may have hastened, if only slightly, the day when Islam confronts the intellectual fossilization that has made its lands cultural backwaters for centuries.

The death of Osama bin Laden will not bring the European Union out of its postmodern cultural funk (for bin Laden’s wickedness was rarely grasped in Old Europe), and I doubt that it will have a decisive effect on 2012 presidential politics in the United States. But it did create a moment in which to reconsider and recalibrate the full menu of methods the West uses to confront the ongoing jihadist threat, and that reconsideration might lead to wiser security policy. Perhaps that moment will be seized by public authorities who care more for good governance than for good polling numbers. Perhaps.

What the death of bin Laden did demonstrate unmistakably is just how poorly many religious leaders and religious intellectuals think about the new kind of war in which we have been engaged for more than a decade and a half (although most of us only recognized that after 9/11). Which is to say, the death of Osama bin Laden demonstrated yet again how badly the just war tradition has been received by the men and women who are supposed to be its intellectual custodians.

Thus from some religious quarters came laments, not over the ongoing damage that bin Laden’s evil network causes, but over the fact that he was killed and the method used to kill him. It seemed as if, at various divinity schools, bin Laden was a gangster writ large who ought to have been dealt with by law enforcement agencies and methods and, after apprehension, read his Miranda rights and given a trial by a jury of his peers.

This is nonsense, and dangerous nonsense at that. As I told one reporter, attempts to portray what happened to bin Laden in Pakistan as the equivalent of the Chicago police department breaking into a Milwaukee crack house and gunning down a crack-cocaine dealer are preposterous; they completely misconstrue the nature of the conflict between bin Laden and the United States since the mid-1990s. To say it yet again: In dealing with the bin Ladens of this world, we are engaging in war, not police work; and the relevant moral standards are those derived from the just war tradition, not from the U.S. Criminal Code as interpreted by the Warren Court.

As usual, Rutgers University’s James Turner Johnson got it exactly right: Bin Laden’s death was “an execution of justice, plain and simple, carried out under the authority of the one who can properly use bellum (war) in the service of good.” And why is it important to grasp this? Because if soft-minded and ill-informed religious leaders and intellectuals succeed in gutting the just war tradition and loosening our public culture’s grasp on it, the only alternative will be a raw pragmatism that justifies any end and any means.


George Weigel’s column is distributed by the Denver Catholic Register, the official newspaper of the Archdiocese of Denver. Image: Reuters

George Weigel


George Weigel is a Distinguished Senior Fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington, D.C., and the author, most recently, of The End and the Beginning: Pope John Paul II⎯The Victory of Freedom, the Last Years, the Legacy.

  • Waiting on a friend

    Well Weigel is correct about too soft theologians but he will not criticize the last two Popes and their similar gutting of the death penalty tradition….calling “cruel” something that God repeatedly mandated in Scripture. This is a weakness in our system not just in Weigel. The Church needed a raft of Cardinals in 1520 AD to criticize Pope Leo X’s belief in burning heretics. That raft never appeared….in 1520….but only centuries later. Now we have the opposite problem vis a vis punishment ( too soft rather than too hard) but the same syndrome as to reluctance of dependent pivotal people to question the ordinary papal level of

  • Dan Deeny

    Yes, Mr. Weigel has everything correct. Very well written, also. Thank you Mr. Weigel.

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  • There is no justice without forgiveness, and there is no forgiveness without deeds of mercy.

  • Chris in Maryland

    The just killing of Osama bin Laden was an act of mercy to protect those he sought to kill, and to disconnect those in Islam that he sought to recruit.

  • The left have lost a mouthpiece:

    “Talk about climate change is not an ideological luxury but a reality,” Mr. bin Laden was quoted as saying in a report on Al Jazeera’s English-language Web site. “All of the industrialized countries, especially the big ones, bear responsibility for the global warming crisis.”

    “Noam Chomsky was correct when he compared the U.S. policies to those of the Mafia,” Al Jazeera quoted Mr. bin Laden as saying. “They are the true terrorists, and therefore we should refrain from dealing in the U.S. dollar and should try to get rid of this currency as early as possible.”

    Poor Al Gore — he lost one of his allies.

  • Peter in Buffalo

    I am not taking sides, just asking why Mr. Weigel did not address the question of how Bin Laden was killed. As I understand it the debate of just war in this situation hinges on whether he died as the result of a deliberate assassination operation or during an attempted capture that turned into a shoot out. We captured, tried and executed Saddam Hussein, right? Was our goal to have this go the same way until he started shooting back? Isn’t that an important distinction to resolve for the sake of clearly addressing both sides of the current debate?

  • Ronsonic

    I have taken to asking people who complain that Bin Laden was gunned down whether he should have been treated in accordance with the Geneva Convention if he had been captured alive. When they answer yes, then I use that as confirmation that he was an enemy at war and was treated as such.