The Moral/Ethical Test of a Generation

I don’t write on current events like I used to. There’s many reasons for that, and enumerating those is perhaps for another posting.

But the locating and killing of Osama bin Laden is more than current events. It is one of those critical moments of history that shape not only the news and current events but we ourselves. What we make of it, what it makes of us: these are all critical questions and ones that we all by rights should grapple with.

Moments like this become logical points of reflection too. For example, there is this very interesting and astute analysis of that photo from the situation room during the raid. It looks at that photo as a snapshot of who we are as a country at this particular moment.

But most of all, this whole event is really a moral and ethical test writ large in the real world. Many of us have gone through the “what if” exercises around critical ethical and moral dilemmas in history. “You have a chance to go back in time and kill Hitler before he rose to power, would you”? “You’re Harry Truman and have to decide whether to use the atomic bomb or force an amphibious invasion of Japan, what do you choose”?

Whatever one may think about Obama (and me being me, my thoughts are complex), there is no denying that he had the unenviable task of answering this class of questions and having it count in the real world. He had to decide whether to kill bin Laden or capture him. He had to decide what to do with the body. He had to decide how to speak of it and frame it. He had to face a host of difficult moral and ethical questions. He had to answer the biggest moral and ethical test of this generation and do it where the answers really count.

I have to say that my own feeling is that he rose to the occasion and answered them with an appropriate mix of realism and nobility. As I say, my feelings on Obama are complex, but on this particular issue, I have nothing but admiration for his handling and gratitude for having someone in charge who handled these challenging questions so well.

I think there was no choice but to kill bin Laden. I am not happy for that fact, I don’t celebrate it. Robert E. Lee once remarked “It is well that war is so terrible, otherwise we should grow too fond of it”. Nietzsche famously wrote “Battle not with monsters, lest ye become a monster, and if you gaze into the abyss, the abyss gazes also into you.”. One of the foundations of the Buddhist point of view around forgiveness is that hate and anger themselves cause harm in those who hold on to them. Mark Twain summed that point up when he noted “Anger is an acid that can do more harm to the vessel in which it is stored than to anything on which it is poured”.

And yet, we live in a real world. And the fact is that bin Laden and his followers were not going to stop until they or we were dead. We didn’t choose this fight but the way he joined the fight made it a fight to the death. And so there was no choice: we had to kill him. Even the Dalai Lama has spoken to the necessity of “counter-measures” here.

With that heavy necessity, with the choice of what to do essentially made for us by necessity, the focus of moral and ethical questions then move to the how. How do we set out to do the needful and avoid the dangers Lee, Nietzsche and Twain all spoke to.

Obama’s choices around these questions where solid ones. They were grounded in the necessities of the real world but strove to do only as much harm as needed. The entire operation and handling is a strong lesson in the idea of proportionate force. Choosing to take the risk of sending American troops in rather than bombing the complex minimized civilian casualties, collateral damage and the risk of mistakenly killing someone else. Taking bin Laden’s body and disposing of it in a way that left no shrine for followers was necessary. But choosing to not make a trophy of his body, to not bandy it about in victory, and to not release the photos are all important choices that temper and humanize the harsh, necessary actions. They are, too I will note, choices that bin Laden and his followers haven’t made: witness the terrible murder of Wall Street Journal reporter Danny Pearl beheaded and his head raised as a trophy all on video tape. Burying bin Laden at sea was not something that is generally within Muslim practice. But preparing his body and giving it rites and respect in accord with Muslim practice tempers that fact. And the simple fact is that burial at sea is the only generally accepted means of disposing of a body to leave no trace that isn’t viewed as desecration in Islam. Here again, Obama gave Osama merciful treatment that the latter certainly wouldn’t have given the former.

In the days that have followed, Obama has struck a tone of grim determination and necessity. And that is the right way to speak of these things. We did what we had to do. We are not proud of it, we do not like it. But it had to be done, it has been done, and now we move forward.

In a quiet way, this whole episode has made me proud of being an American. Not in the “USA” chanting way of some. Rather, proud that we did something difficult in the best possible way. Wherever else I may have issue with Obama (and I do, like I do every politician), on this matter I am truly grateful and will never forget.