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

Just War and Osama bin Laden

Jonathine Shine, Tyler Wigg-Stevenson, Daniel H. Levine


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.)


As a Christian soldier, much about the War on Terrorism gives me pause: not this. The targeted killing of Osama bin Laden was the ultimate precision strike, carried out in a manner that ensured that the enemy combatant himself was attacked with a minimum risk to noncombatants. It was discriminate, proportional, and a military necessity. He was a combatant. He planned, trained, coordinated, financed, and inspired the fighters of Al Qaeda. He carried weapons in all publicity material and publicly demanded ongoing violence against the US and others. How active he was is beside the point; at the very least he remained the symbolic and inspirational leader of a movement that continues to work very hard to kill a lot of people every day and to defeat our military forces on the battlefield (defined not just by us but also by him). Let us have no cheering, please, but no moral hand-wringing either.

—Jonathan Shine is a Major in the U.S. Army. The views presented are those of the author alone and do not necessarily reflect those of the Army or the Department of Defense.


The Just War tradition cannot answer whether the killing of Osama bin Laden was right, because it is a better sparring partner than it is a magistrate. We may want it to give us the emotional satisfaction of rendering a morally imprecise, binary verdict: a conflict as entirely right or wrong. But Just War should instead define the church’s posture in its open-ended, irreducibly complex moral interrogation of force.

Employing the latter approach, the Just War tradition can help us see that America’s prosecution of a violent and persistent enemy is indeed a righteous exercise, in principle, of the vocation of human government (Rom 13.1-7). But it should also leave us uneasy with tactical aspects of this prosecution, such as a unilateral, unsanctioned action within foreign sovereign territory, or the shooting of what presently appears to be an unarmed man (even an unrepentant mass murderer).  In sum, Just War requires that our approach to conflict be wholly defined by the security afforded by our sovereign God’s transcendent righteousness, rather than the insecurity posed by our temporal enemy’s imminent wickedness. And this is why the Lord’s nominal followers, unmasked by their primary loyalty to a kingdom that can be secured by violence, despise its discipline (Jn 18.36).

Tyler Wigg-Stevenson is the Director of the Two Futures Project.

Proportionality in war (pace Augustine) should be understood as balancing the good to be achieved against the harms of violence. The horror of what someone has done does not necessarily equal the good to be gained from punishment (unless we assume a hidden metaphysical accounting that balances the books and begs the question).  Some might argue that bin Laden's death will be a decisive blow against terrorism or for peace. They are naive.  Others might argue that bringing relief to those pained by the thought of bin Laden not paying for his crimes vindicates the death, suffering, and displacement brought by the overall war in Afghanistan/Pakistan.  They are monsters. The best light in which bin Laden's death can be cast is as a minor gain at a relatively low immediate cost, one more corpse among many in a larger war that we can hope has a more just aim.

Daniel H. Levine is an Assistant Professor in the School of Public Policy at the University of Maryland and a Research Fellow with the Center for International and Security Studies at Maryland.



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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.”