Published May 18, 2011
The Catholic Difference
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 post-modern 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 is Distinguished Senior Fellow and William E. Simon Chair in Catholic Studies at the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington, D.C.