Capital Commentary is the weekly current-affairs publication of CPJ, written to encourage the pursuit of public justice.

Just War and Osama bin Laden (cont.)

Erica Borggren, Brenda Kay Zylstra


May 6, 2011

Capital Commentary asked contributors to answer the question: In terms of just war doctrine, and given the facts publicly known, was the killing of Osama bin Laden a just act? (For a perspective on this question, among others, from Center for Public Justice CEO Gideon Strauss, see his recent Christianity Today article.)

Public rhetoric related to news of Osama bin Laden’s death could easily lead us to believe that the military operation in Abbottabad was retributive, a meting out of vengeance upon a man who very much deserved it.  If revenge was indeed the intent, rather than a side effect, of the operation, it could be considered potentially unjust from a Christian perspective—and possibly counterproductive from a strategic perspective.    

However, if we assume a non-retributive intent behind the operation—one of military necessity rather than of vengeance—then it was very much a just action.  From a strategic perspective, bin Laden was a particularly important military target; for example, his continued evasion of US forces emboldened extremists and was a public perceptions nightmare in a war in which winning over the Afghan and Muslim-world public is an absolute necessity.  

Necessity aside, beware the simple and taunting vengeance narrative, which belies a proper Christian perspective and which only escalates the cycle of violence in Afghanistan—a place where we are currently working to convince insurgents to lay down their arms.  

—Erica Borggren is a West Point graduate, Rhodes Scholar, and former Army Captain who now serves as a (stateside) speechwriter for General David Petraeus. All non-attributed views, opinions and conclusions are those of the author and not the US government.


My instinctive response is a simple yes. Of course the killing of Osama bin Laden was just, because for such a man as this no manner or means of killing could be called unjust. For the hate and terror and bloodshed he visited upon the world, the unjust death would be a peaceful one in his sleep.

Of course, my instincts are not argument, nor are feelings a guide to justice. In fact, systems of justice assume an air of detachment, a wariness of emotions as too rash and too raw. Instead, just war doctrine presents three criteria for assessment—distinction, proportionality, and military necessity. Distinction, a directive to avoid non-combatants so far as it is possible, was followed. Proportionality was observed as well (surely it would have been safer and easier for our troops to bomb the compound rather than use discriminate force).

The final criterion is military necessity. In this extreme case, it is the point at which just war doctrine and our instincts meet. Was it a military necessity for Osama bin Laden to die at our hands? The answer is still simply yes. Though bin Laden’s death does not end the war, the war could not end without it. We’ve spent the last decade at war. His death is the first tangible victory we’ve understood. Costly and unsatisfactory, it is a just victory nonetheless.

—Brenda Kay Zylstra is a dual Master's student in the Harris School of Public Policy and the Committee on International Relations at the University of Chicago.

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Capital Commentary is a weekly current-affairs publication of the Center for Public Justice. Published since 1996, it is written to encourage the pursuit of justice. Commentaries do not necessarily represent an official position of the Center for Public Justice but are intended to help advance discussion. Articles, with attribution, may be republished according to our publishing guidelines.”