Christianity,  News,  Politics

N.T. Wright and Rowan Williams Criticize Bin Laden Killing

Rowan Williams and N.T. Wright have some strong words criticizing the recent execution of Osama Bin Laden. I do not agree with either of them, but here they are nonetheless. First, Rowan Williams:

“I think that the killing of an unarmed man is always going to leave a very uncomfortable feeling because it doesn’t look as if justice is seen to be done in those circumstances.

“I think it is also true that the different versions of events which have emerged in recent days have not done a great deal to help people.

“I don’t know the full details any more than anyone else does but I do believe that in such circumstances, when we are faced with someone who is manifestly, was manifestly, a war criminal, as you might say, in terms of atrocities inflicted, it is important that justice is seen to be done.”

N.T. Wright says this:

“The main reason President Obama has been cheered to the echo across the US, even by his bitter opponents, is not simply the fully comprehensible sense of closure a decade after the horrible, wicked actions of September 11 2001. Underneath that, he has just enacted one of America’s most powerful myths.

“Perhaps the myth was necessary in the days of the Wild West, of isolated frontier towns and roaming gangs. But it legitimizes a form of vigilantism, of taking the law into one’s own hands, which provides ‘justice’ only of the crudest sort. In the present case, the ‘hero’ fired a lot of stray bullets in Iraq and Afghanistan before he got it right. What’s more, such actions invite retaliation. They only ‘work’ because the hero can shoot better than the villain; but the villain’s friends may decide on vengeance. Proper justice is designed precisely to outflank such escalation.

“Of course, ‘proper justice’ is hard to come by internationally. America regularly casts the UN (and the International Criminal Court) as the hapless sheriff, and so continues to play the world’s undercover policeman. The UK has gone along for the ride. What will we do when new superpowers arise and try the same trick on us? And what has any of this to do with something most Americans also believe, that the God of ultimate justice and truth was fully and finally revealed in the crucified Jesus of Nazareth, who taught people to love their enemies, and warned that those who take the sword will perish by the sword?”

Read the rest here. The Telegraph has a round-up of other responses from religious leaders in England. They all sound a similar theme.

(HT: Michael Bird)


  • Andrew

    The military is an agent of the state and part of the state’s proper and God-given execution of justice in light of Romans 13. Not to mention that most executions by the state are of unarmed men. When’s the last time someone went to the electric chair or the gallows brandishing a weapon? These arguments are completely off base.

  • Mike

    He confuses righteousness on two fronts. How God imputes it to the believing sinner and how he gives the power of justice to state.

  • Grant


    Not so sure you can use the Romans 13 passage to justify the killing of and unarmed man who resides in another country and submits to a different power to yours (no matter how guilty he is)

    Does the State of Iran have the right to kill unarmed American citizens in countries outside Iran without a fair trial?

  • Vaughan Smith

    Andrew – Agreed. However, I don’t think that that is the thrust of what Wright and Williams are getting at. It isn’t a debate about capital punishment (which I support, BTW). ObL was killed without a trial, or any kind of lawful process. If he had been armed, and he was killed resisting arrest, then the killing would be lawful. I fail to see the connection between your illustration (the lawfully convicted individual facing their punishment) and the situation with ObL.

  • Carl

    “The God of ultimate justice was revealed in the crucified Christ. ” Yes he was, and to satisfy that justice Christ was crucified. There is no basis for capital punishment without the ultimate judge waiting to dispense justice to those sent to him. The state in effect says this crime is so foul only God can bring justice so we consign you to him. They act as his agent as Andrew pointed out.

  • Robert Slowley

    Hello – fellow Brit here.

    As I understand it it is against international law (which presumably means treaties that America decided to sign up to and be bound by) to execute someone who poses no immediate threat to you. In the case of Osama Bin Laden he was clearly guilty of the crimes he would have been accused of, but that doesn’t validate a pre-emptive execution without trial.

    Surely even in cases where we know someone is guilty and that they will be condemned to death it is important to actually conduct the trial?

    I think therefore that if the suspicion that he was unarmed and posed no immediate threat is true then it would have been better to have captured him.

    All that said though, it’s unfortunate that this is getting the news coverage it is. If America did something bad in executing Osama that is more than outweighed by the good in finding him and preventing him from conducting more acts of terror.

  • Robert Slowley

    @Andrew – their issue is not that there is an execution of an unarmed man, but that it is a summary execution, without trial, and contrary to international law which America chose to be bound by.

  • Nate

    “Of course, ‘proper justice’ is hard to come by internationally. America regularly casts the UN (and the International Criminal Court) as the hapless sheriff, and so continues to play the world’s undercover policeman.”

    A couple of things to note. While Wright makes an accurate statement that justice is difficult to come by internationally, he immediately then infers that the U.S. is somehow the cause of this by making the International Court the hapless sheriff. The International Court IS a hapless sheriff. They are worthless. Furthermore, the U.S. is a sovereign nation and history has already borne proof that the International community is a joke.

    What this looks like is that a couple of Brits are still upset over the revolution and are still seeking to cast us peasants (wild west reference, etc.).

  • John

    Much like Wright’s perspective on justification, his words are eloquent and well thought out. Unfortunately, they haven’t got to do with the facts.

  • Christiane

    I’m glad Bin Laden was tracked down as a PRIORITY by President Obama:
    there are reports now that among the data retrieved at Bin Laden’s compound, are plans for further attacks.

    Currently, as a direct result of data from the raid, we are now on elevated alert for attacks on the U.S. rail system.

    I don’t condemn U.S. Navy seals who are trained to missions that are more complex and surgical than normal military operations.
    Their judgment in that situation, I choose to accept as a part of their training. We are fortunate to have men of the Seals courage and military caliber. I’m supporting them 100%. They were sent to accomplish an objective.
    They did it. I honor them.

  • Micah

    yankeegospelgirl – Despite the fact that you don’t care what Williams thinks, i imagine there are quite a few people who feel otherwise. Being head of the Church of England is a fairly prominent position. I’m sure there are many positions he takes where i would disagree, but i am still interested in his thoughts on topics like this.

  • Andrew


    This wasn’t a common criminal. This was a man who declared war on the US. When you declare war, you declare yourself a possible casualty of that war. And capturing a man like OBL is just asking for him to detonate a bomb or signal an attack. By killing him, you prevent that possibility.

  • Robert Slowley

    Just to provide some background to what Wright is saying about America and the effective toothlessness of the international courts.

    Wright is correct in saying that the US is partly responsible for the International Court of Justice (ICJ) not having any teeth. America signed up to be bound by it’s rulings, agreed to be bound by it’s ruling in ‘The Republic of Nicaragua v. The United States of America’ (1984), then when the ICJ ruled against it ‘The Court found in its verdict that the United States was “in breach of its obligations under customary international law not to use force against another State”, “not to intervene in its affairs”, “not to violate its sovereignty”, “not to interrupt peaceful maritime commerce”, and “in breach of its obligations under Article XIX of the Treaty of Friendship, Commerce and Navigation between the Parties signed at Managua on 21 January 1956.”‘, what did the US do?

    The ICJs rulings are enforced by the security council of the UN of which the US is a permanent member with veto power. On 28th October 1986 America used it’s veto to stop the resolution calling for ‘full and immediate compliance with the Judgment’. So there was a court that was meant to be binding on all members of the UN, the US agreed to be bound by it’s judgements, but when the court ruled in a way America didn’t like it used it’s power to prevent the judgement being enforced. After this the US also withdrew it’s acceptance of future court rulings.

    So if the ICJ is toothless it’s in part because America has demonstrated that if you don’t like what the international courts say it’s OK to ignore them.

  • Robert Slowley

    Andrew – I did write a response to you earlier but for some reason it has not been allowed through moderation.

    I understand that perspective, and I am personally more inclined to say if America has done anything sub-optimal here it’s fairly limited, but lawyers and analysts on both sides of the pond argue that it’s not clear cut that Osama does neatly fit in to the category of being an enemy in the way that a soldier would be – and in any case it is still illegal to kill a soldier if they are unarmed and pose no immediate threat to you.

    This is why the United Nations are calling for all the information to be released on what actually happened, and why some arecalling for an inquiry.

    I don’t see how a captured Osama sitting in chains in an American cell can call attacks or detonate anything, so I don’t think that’s a valid reason for summary execution.

    Look at what happened with the Nuremberg trials with the Nazis, the point is there *were* trials, summary execution was illegal under international law even in cases as clear cut as that, just as it is today.

  • Ryan K.

    For all this talk about international law, people realize that functionally there is no such thing…right?

    I mean you get that Syria is allowed to serve on UN human rights commissions while killing their own citizens?

    You get that Iran is allowed to to do likewise and speak of the value of democracy at the UN while rigging their own elections and torturing their own citizens in secret prisons?

    You get that Hamas and other Arab countries are able to harbor murders and those who have killed people in many terror attacks without “international law” stopping them?

    The world has long known and so have all of its nations that America is the functional keeper of peace. Now I am not arguing if this is right or wrong, or if this will change in the coming decades, but since the end of the Cold War the USA has been the world’s only hegemonic super-power. With this role comes the de facto responsibility in a globalized world to also function at times as a world policing power.

    Besides I love how Dr. Wright and Williams can offer criticisms of men who were in the fog of war and dealing with one of the most dangerous men alive. How were the seals to know that OBL did not have an explosive vest on of some kind? Just because he did not have a gun does not eliminate any type of danger he could have still posed to these American soldiers.

  • Robert Slowley

    By the way, I want to be very clear – I’m no enemy of America (I’d consider myself to be a friend of America and Americans). Nor do I think America is uniquely to blame in all these situations (as many liberals do), countries tend to abuse their powers – as America abused it’s veto in stopping enforcement of the ICJ ruling the UK (which is where I’m from) also uses it’s security council veto powers to act in it’s own interest.

    Of course as Christians we ought to try to be above such things as our first obligation is to our heavenly allegiance, not our national one.

  • Smithbaptist

    My thoughts about America and war against terror are in no way influenced by what two Brits think. Good mission, good kill. One must be totally clueless to say “most Americans” believe justice is ultimately in the death of Christ.

  • Nate

    “Of course as Christians we ought to try to be above such things as our first obligation is to our heavenly allegiance, not our national one.”

    Robert: While your statement is accurate your posts carry the insinuation that you believe “national” means “international”.

    America is a sovereign nation. Its Constitution and its people (at least a sizable majority) don’t recognize any International Law or statement that jeopardizes its sovereignty.

    The International Community (United Nations) ia a joke, as Ryan K pointed out. The American people know this and they also realize that we are a part of the UN only so that we don’t have to go it alone in every issue. When push comes to shove America will do what is in her best interest regardless of what the UN has to say about it.

    Why? Because the International Community takes our money, our soldiers, our resources, and provides very little, if anything, alongside us. Granted, you Brits do help, but name an International Conflict since WWII where NATO forces weren’t predominantly US.

  • Donald Johnson

    Some Japanese soldiers in WWII surrendered only to blow themselves up when US soldiers got near. People can be a threat in a lot of ways than just carrying a gun.

    War is hell. Unless you have been in it, it is simply wrong to criticize what happens in battle when a split second can make a difference in you or a comrade dying.

  • donsands

    Bin Laden did have a rifle and a hand gun with him.
    The Navy Seals are incredible warriors. I’m glad they’re on that wall; I want them on that wall.

    Have a terrific Lord’s day, and Mother’s Day.

  • Robert

    I find it interesting how quick and clear Rowan Williams can be in his condemnation of the USA for killing Bin Laden, and yet how utterly muddled and slow he is when it comes to the outright condemnation of homosexuality from a Scriptural viewpoint. Apparently, when it comes to clergy practicing homosexuality, he calls out for patience, dialogue, but when it comes to the USA and Bin Laden, the “good archbishop” becomes very clear in his denunciations. Apparently patience and dialogue are only called for when there is a threat to the Church of England shrinking even more into non-relevance and non-existence than it already is. I’m sorry, but I really don’t believe that anyone I would care to listen to is actually even listening to Rowan Williams (or cares what he says). What a wasted office he fills! He could have done so much good. Sad!

  • Robert Slowley

    Ryan –

    I think your last paragraph of criticisms is bang on for Wright, but not so for Williams. Wright’s tone is unfortunately antagonistic – perhaps that is because he has some latent anger towards America (an anger I do not share) and clearly this unreasonably influences how he portrays things. I don’t think Williams is making the same sort of statements.

    I agree that it may be the case that the Seals acted in a proper way to what they thought was a real threat (and my inclination is to have that as my default assumption) – the question being asked though is whether they were specifically ordered to summarily execute Osama regardless, or whether their orders were to capture if they considered it safe but to shoot if they decided Osama posed a threat of some sort. I don’t know the specifics (as I guess neither of us do) as to whether it’s reasonable to assume that Osama was likely to have spent all his time wearing an explosive jacket, although I’d assume that’s very unlikely, and I’ve not heard any commentators even suggest that it might be.

  • Kelley Kimble

    I’m seeing it as war. After the war is over and officers are captured or surrender, there are trials for them. But while the war is still going on, the enemy is still the enemy. I can’t say that I’m happy about it, but by the same token this rogue army of terrorists has killed and maimed civilians on several continents. There are people out there who would cut off the heads of our grandchildren and call it good. I think some people fail to realize that. We’re not talking about an ordinary soldier; we’re talking about a man who led an entire movement of terror.

  • Ryan K.

    @ Robert

    I agree it is unreasonable to assume OBL spent his every day wearing an explosive vest in anticipation that the USA might storm his compound. Yet your imagery does not fully encapsulate the situation.

    Remember that the raid took 40 minutes and a good chunk of that was the Navy Seals making their way to the 3rd floor of the home were OBL actually was.

    Given that these are the facts of the raid OBL did have ample time in his third floor room to plan and anticipate the arrival of the Seals to his bedroom.

    If I am a seal and it takes me and my fellow warriors even 15 minutes to get to the room were OBL is, than it is perfectly rational to assume that during the time of our arrival and making it to his room, he could have easily put on an explosive vest of some kind or set up some other explosive trap.

    I would just ask you Robert, do you really think that OBL was oblivious for those 15 minutes of what was going on in the compound? Do you really think it is a stretch for soliders in hostile territory to operate under the assumption that OBL might want to kill or harm them in ways not exclusive to a firearm?

    I would agree with you completely if the situation was OBL being woken out of a deep slumber and caught off-guard. But the facts are that OBL heard the choppers land and the gun fight taking place around him. It is beyond reasonable to assume he might have been willing to become a suicide bomber and take American soldiers with him rather than face capture.

  • Robert Slowley

    Nate –

    To clear up any misunderstandings – I think our moral obligation goes in order of something like: To God, to the rulers / laws of our own nation, and then to any supra-national laws and agreements which our nation has chosen to abide by.

    I don’t think I quite understand what you’re saying about sovereignty. Could you please rephrase what you’re saying for me?

    It’s unfortunate that a ‘sizeable majority’ (if you’re right about that) of Americans don’t recognise international law, as the American government do and are bound by (at the very least) those international laws they have in the past ratified / been signatories to. To start with a simple example, take the Geneva Conventions, composed in 1949 in the aftermath of WWII America ratified them in 1955 – this means that America said “We agree these laws are a good idea and we agree to be bound by them”. Of course there are all sorts of other laws and treaties which America has been involved in writing, and which it has signed since then.

    With respect to Ryan K’s comments about NATO, I would expect that in most major conflicts NATO America would be providing the majority of the muscle, that’s not because other countries are less committed, it’s simply a fact of us being much smaller than America. America’s military expenditure in 2010 was $687 billion. Of the other full members of NATO this is their total military expenditure: France $61 billion, UK $57 billion, Germany $46 billion, Italy $38 billion, Canada $20 billion. After that point the countries involved only have change to push around in terms of their military expenditure.

    Given that the American military spending is over eleven times greater than the expenditure of France (the second largest military in NATO) it’s unavoidable that America’s contribution to any major conflict will be significantly larger than that of any other country. However to answer the actual question “name an International Conflict since WWII where NATO forces weren’t predominantly US” my answer would be the current Libyan conflict (I don’t think this proves anything for the reasons given above, but you did ask).

    With respect to the general comments by people here about America acting as the world police, it being good to disregard the international community and law, and that ‘when push comes to shove’ America will choose to act in it’s own interests; I’d caution you all to think about whether all of these things are good – what message they send to the rest of the world about whether they should be obeying international law, and whether ‘acting in your own interests’ really is always the right thing to do (rather than taking actions that benefit your neighbour). I’ve recently made friends with a Muslim colleague at work who has come over from the Middle East, and I am concerned that some of these sorts of attitudes and corresponding foreign policies are involved in ongoing conflict and hatred of America by people in the region.

  • Robert Slowley

    As I understand it the account of what actually happened has been subject to changes (here is one recent example from CNN). I have not followed this in detail, but earlier in the UK we were told that everyone was armed for instance, but now according to that CNN piece there was only one person who was armed, then we were told that Osama was unarmed, but after that someone has stated that he was moving towards weaponry. To be fair to Wright and Williams we need to see their comments in light of what they had been told by the media / White House at that time, and not what we might now think based on recent changes / corrections / updates. As I understand it for instance it has not been confirmed by the White House that Osama was reaching for a weapon, if he was that in of itself clearly provides ample justification for using lethal force, but it would be unreasonable to criticise Williams for not taking that in to account given that at the time at which he commented it was thought that Osama was unarmed and no mention of reaching for a weapon was made.

    I have no idea how much of the 40 minutes was spent getting to Osama, I’ve not seen an official time line that gives that information, but I would expect that tasks like comprehensively searching the compound for information (hard drives, DVDs, documents), securing women and children, and ensuring that the helicopter was disposed of would take a significant amount of those 40 minutes. I entirely take on board your point that Osama could have been armed in one way or another (it’s really irrelevant whether it took 30 minutes or 1 minute to get to him he might always be armed with a firearm for instance), that’s why I’ve not criticised the Seals for acting as they did – however I can understand why others would criticise killing him when the media (perhaps not the White House, but the media) earlier portrayed the situation as one whereby Osama was not armed.

    A more significant question is whether their orders were to shoot to kill or to capture Osama. It’s universally agreed that assassination is illegal (and immoral) [I believe there’s a presidential order or something outlawing such actions is there not?], and that even with enemy soldiers actions have to be proportionate to the risk posed by them (recall as I said that we did not summarily execute the Nazi leadership but instead held trials).

    I think what would be useful now would be less speculation based on the limited and contradictory reports we have seen in the media of what happened, and for the White House to release a detailed account of what the objectives of the mission were, what happened stage by stage, etc. My personal belief is that it’s very likely that this will exhonerate American actions here, which will be seen to be reasonable and proportionate, and so I see no reason not to do such a release (which I expect will happen probably in the next few days).

  • Ryan K.

    I am not speculating Robert, I refuted your point so instead of acknowledging that you minimize it and then try to change the subject.

    I think we can do better than that.

    Your right, I am not expert nor do I know the full timeline of events but just from personal experience I am pretty sure that if the Seals were not in his third floor bedroom within 20 seconds he had enough time to put on an explosive vest.

  • Robert Slowley

    Ryan – I don’t see that you ‘refuted’ my point, or that I tried to ‘change the subject’, but perhaps we’ve reached the end of fruitful discussion on that topic – so whoever reads this can make up their own mind.

  • Robert Slowley

    If I could just add one more thing to the discussion –

    That I think the issue of whether issues like the possible ‘shoot to kill’ orders are legal is a matter worth considering and working through is not because I want to attack America, or (as I think some on the left are doing) try to deflect attention away from the great act of justice done by America here, but because I think we (the US and the UK) as countries with a wonderful Christian heritage which have been put in a powerful position in the world by God’s grace have a particular duty to be scrupulous in how we act.

    As mentioned earlier by Ryan, countries like Iran rig their elections, torture their own citizens in secret prisons, and so on – so given such terrible evils perpetrated by Iran et al, aren’t I just focussing on tiny details that don’t matter in the bigger picture of the evils done in the world? No, I don’t think so – because Iran is not like the US, Iran has not been blessed as America has by God in being a country he has raised up that is both mighty, and has been given (and well received) the gospel. I think America in particular (and to a lesser degree the UK) should have even higher scruples because God has raised our nations up in this age.

    If you’re the world super power and you use that power to do good (like bringing justice to Osama) then I say hurrah, but how it is done matters because it sends a message to the rest of the world. If the rest of the world gets the message “We don’t care about following international law, we just do what is in our interests as we like because we can” then what example does that set to the other much smaller nations who we are trying to get to adopt more of the treaties that compose international law (and remember these treaties deal with things like human rights, whether you scatter landmines in areas where civilians live, etc..)

    I suppose what I’m rather inexpertly trying to apply here is Jesus’ words in Luke 12:48 “But the one who did not know, and did what deserved a beating, will receive a light beating. Everyone to whom much was given, of him much will be required, and from him to whom they entrusted much, they will demand the more.”

  • Ryan K.

    You tried to make the point Robert that we can’t know if it was reasonable to assume that OBL might have had an explosive vest on.

    I pointed out that given the circumstances of the raid it was reasonable.

    This is called a refutation Robert. You can disagree or tell me where I am wrong, but don’t just gloss over it.

  • Nate


    Sovereignty means that the U.S. is not ruled or overseen by others (International Law, etc.). Our Constitution is the ultimate Law of this country, not International Law. This country can choose to work in conjunction with International Law, but we are not bound to them, regardless of what the diplomats have agreed to. An American citizen has no responsibility to live according to International Law.

    If the British have ceded their sovereignty and wish to be ruled by International Law have fun, but Americans will have none of it.

  • Robert Slowley

    Ryan – we all know what the word ‘refutation’ means, no need to try to educate people on that one.

    So for instance when you asked earlier “name an International Conflict since WWII where NATO forces weren’t predominantly US” (the implication being that there wasn’t one) and I pointed out the recent Libya conflict you were soundly refuted.

    What you’re missing here though is an understanding of the difference between a successful refutation and merely an attempt at one. You seem to think the way it works is you sy a bunch of stuff and that’s it, your refutation is successful, but actually you’d need (as a first step) to provide very compelling reasons that your refutation was successful. For your refutation to be successful here you’d haveto do quite a few things – one would be to clearly and convincingly show that it is very certain that Osama could have been wearing an explosive jacket – but you’ve not actually given any evidence of that just speculation based on no evidence.

    I think it’s probably quite unlikely that Osama keeps explosive jackets in the room he was working in – far more likely that either there are no explosive jackets there at all, or if there are such jackets on the site at all then they’re unlikely to have been in the specific room he was in (and the nature of the raid clearly limited his movements).

    Neither of us have any outstanding evidence to prove one way or the other (but of course the burden of proof lies on you here), but two significant reasons why I don’t find your argument compelling at all would be that no one else has claimed this, when clearly it would be in the interest of the White House etc, and if your idea of things is so likely then why … is it such a good theory but wrong in practice (given that he wasn’t found with an explosive jacket)?

    He wasn’t even *armed* when the Seals went in to the room. Your explanation rests on Osama having the required arms at hand, and that it being most likely that he would arm himself as soon as possible. But in the facts as explained by the Whitehouse you are clearly wrong there, he was not armed, and (unconfirmed) he only even made an attempt to be armed (with some weapon – perhaps even a knife) when Seals went in to his room.

    So your entire argument does not have anyweight to it that others would find convincing.

    As I said before this seems to be a rather fruitless argument – so I won’t be engaging any further with you on this issue.

  • Robert Slowley

    Nate – I think you’re mixed up as to what sovereignty means with respect to international law.

    America isn’t a special case that gets to be sovereign and has international law obligations, that’s true for all countries. All countries are sovereign states who also are bound by international law. Nothing special about the US, and no need to imply being sovereign and being bound by treaties and conventions like the Geneva convention take away one’s sovereignty.

    America is bound in the legal sense to obey international law. It’s also able to withdraw from a certain amount of that should it wish to. So for instance with all the discussions in America about the legal status of the people held at Guantanamo bay some of those questions were around what ‘legal status’ the people had, in termsof whether they were ‘enemy combatants’ – the reason for this is because the US is a signatory to the Geneva convention which imposes obligations on how enemy combatants are treated. That’s why it was important for America to argue that there’s another category of person, so that they would not be legally obligated to treat them according to the rules in the Geneva convention.

    International law is mostly about states, not individuals – so yes in some sense you’re right, but that rather misses the point.

  • Robert Slowley

    Feel free to ignore me guys, and hear the same message from your own State department.

    Here is an article explaining what international law is, how America needs (and does) comply with it, and why it is important.

  • Phildog

    Let me put this in context – I am British but I have a lot of respect for the USA. This assassination has left me uneasy mainly due to the number of false accounts of the mission. That raises a huge number of questions and concerns.

    Onto specifics, there has been much discussion about national sovereignty. It is important to remember that all nations have national sovereignty even if we do not like them. Was the US operation a breach of Pakistani sovereignty? How would the US react if troops from another nation carried out an assassination on American soil? This argument applies both ways.

    No matter what US public believes, the US and the UK breached Iraqi sovereignty in th invasion. Based on arguments presented in this column that would make GWB and Tony Blair reasonable targets for assassination. I can only imagine the reaction if such an event took place yet others may look on it as justice.

    When I lived in Belfast, US politicians were very quick to condemn military operations to defeat self proclaimed terrorists. Now the US has been subject to terrorism it is astonishing to hear the turnaround in opinion. The US may not like criticism but a little more thought in presenting an argument would be appreciated.

  • Kelley Kimble

    But, what do you do with someone who leads an organization that operates outside of any kind of law? Risking his escape makes the idea of capturing him alive a little careless. How many of his jihadists would gladly kill and die in an effort to free him? Had the plot to assasinate Hitler been successful, would we be condemning Bonhoeffer today rather than looking up to him for taking such a difficult stand? We will never know how many more bin Laden would have killed had he lived. We’re talking about a man who thought nothing of killing random civilians who were just going about their daily lives, not a misunderstood hoodlum who robs convenience stores.

  • Robert Slowley

    Kelly – all serious criminals operate outside the law but that doesn’t mean that summary executions are morally or legally acceptable.

    Do you really think that after capture he’d be rescued by jihadists? How many people have been rescued from Guantanamo Bay?

    The issue is that if America went in with shoot to kill orders regardless, or if the Seals decided to shoot regardless of whether he was armed / posed an immediate threat to them then that puts things in a different ball park.

    I agree this guy is a major murderer, not some local hoodlum – but one of the reasons we’re not like them is because we do follow the rule of law and don’t justify things like summary execution.

  • Andy


    “If the British have ceded their sovereignty and wish to be ruled by International Law have fun, but Americans will have none of it.”

    I’m sorry, but it is comments like this that simply reinforce the negative perceptions that run rampant throughout the non-American world. The USA is a great nation, and it has done many great things, and it stands for freedom etc etc etc… yeah we all get that – lots of wonderful stuff.

    But to say that you will not be bound by International Law because that threatens your sovereignty, is both shortsighted and tragically ironic. The fact of the matter is, despite a compelling reason, your Commander and Chief breached another nation’s sovereignty by sending military personnel into Pakistan – a country that is not considered part of a current military theater of operations. So the sovereignty you will not cede means you get to run rampant over someone else’s? That sounds rather hypocritical.

    As NT Wright said in his article, had the British done that to capture IRA members in America, the USA would have gone ballistic.

    Part of the idea behind international law is the actual defense of sovereignty for the international community. It’s a group of nations coming together to say we will function together in certain ways respecting one another and not crossing boundaries that we shouldn’t (boundaries means more than just red lines on the map, but also trade, extradition, etc). The argument can be made that without international law, the only nation that really has sovereignty is the biggest meanest and most well armed kid on the block. Sound familiar?

    It’s comments like yours that give people from other nations the idea that rather than the hero in the international community (which the USA has been for many years), it is acting rather like the bully. Without international law, no one would be able to cede their sovereignty to anyone else because in reality, they wouldn’t have it. Only the country who had the might to force its will on others, and resist the force of others, would be able to claim true sovereignty. International law is there as an agreed upon set of checks and balances to make sure that doesn’t happen. It doesn’t look good when a prominent member of the group, runs over another when it suits them, despite their being a willing signatory to the agreements.

    But let me say this. The decision Obama faced was a terribly difficult one. Play by the rules of international law and diplomacy and seriously risk losing Osama, or impinge a nation’s sovereignty to get the guy – a guy that certainly needed to be caught and dealt with for the benefit of all. Frankly, I think the right decision was made, even though I would also say that the USA stepped outside its bounds in doing so. Best decision in a tough and far less than perfect situation.

    But please, show a little humility. I don’t think there are very many who are upset that they went in and got him. What galls people is the apparent attitude of, “We’re the USA and we’ll do whatever we want because of who we are and because we can – therefore, don’t even hint that we could somehow be less than lily white in this situation”. That just plays into every bad stereotype the rest of the world carries regarding your (what I think is a great) country.

    Believe me, you may think of your neighbor to the north as weak and inconsequential (you personally may or may not think that but many in America do), but on the international relations scale, the USA could learn a fair amount from Canada.

    As far as whether or not they should have killed Osama on the spot as they did, it’s all speculation and guess work until an after action report which details the orders and the course of action taken is filed by those who were there and made public (and made public it may never be – for many numerous and good reasons). Until then coming to to a conclusion about the rightness or wrongness of that particular issue is an exercise in futility. I trust the Navy Seals as a professional force who takes seriously their commitment to their jobs and the rules of engagement they are bound by. I for or one fully believe that it will be shown they did what they had to do – no more no less.

    What I will say is that Osama needed to be dealt with, the USA made the right decision to go and get him, even though it meant they broke some rules in doing so.

    I wonder – if the USA acknowledged that they broke those rules, explained to Pakistan (who is really the only party that can claim a grievance in this matter) why it had to be done, but apologized for the breach and offered some form of compensation, if any protest from Pakistan would cease. Then the issue would die save for those who wish to nip at the heels (IE: Rowan Williams; and nobody listens to them for long anyway).

  • Nate


    With all due respect, America is not ruled by anyone other than themselves. Furthermore, no U.S. President has ever told the citizens of the U.S. that International Law trumps the U.S. Constitution. If he did he would be impeached. Moreover, if presidential candidates said they wanted the U.S. to be governed by International Law and that those laws would trump the U.S. Constitution they would never be elected.

    Again, if England and the rest of the United Kingdom wants to give away their sovereignty to the International Community then feel free, but DON’T TREAD ON ME!

    You simply don’t understand Americans.

  • Robert Slowley

    The issue is not that I don’t understand Americans, the issue is you don’t seem to understand what international law is or even understand that America has chosen to be bound by various treaties and so on (which constitute international law).

    Did you read the article posted on your State department website? It makes essentially the same points I have made about what international law is, and that America is bound by it.

  • Sundown

    It almost seems as if several people on this thread have this latent hatred towards people who are not Americans; in particular, UK citizens.

    I ask those of who have written these words: do you have faith in God, or in country? You cannot serve two masters.

  • Andy


    I don’t believe that Robert is suggesting that international law would actually govern an individual nation state like the USA. However, international law exists to help nations interact with one another in the global community.

    The argument can be made that without international law, there would be no real sovereignty for anyone. The only sovereign nations would be those strong enough to impose their will on others and withstand the same imposition by others.

    International law exists to place into effect checks and balances in order to keep “might is right” at bay.

    Every country functions through the benefits of international law through things like trade, extradition, and yes, issues of sovereignty.

  • Andy

    I might also add that America is a signatory to many international treaties, such as NAFTA (like it or not) and when the USA has a problem with Canadian lumber, they make no bones about going to the international courts where these things are arbitrated to deal with it.

    So why wouldn’t a country like Pakistan that is not a part of the current theater of war have at least some right to say, “hold on a minute…” when there recognized sovereignty has been breached?

    (By the by – Salient points regarding international law aside, I’m glad Seal Team 6 when in to get him!)

  • Charlton Connett

    As we’re going back and forth over international law, and as Robert somewhat briefly noted before, we should mention that terrorists don’t have legal protection under the color of law. One of the arguments that was made by the Bush administration was that terrorists are not protected under conventional international law because they are not enemy combatants as defined by the Geneva convention or other conventions which the U.S. has agreed to follow. They do not wear a uniform, they do not follow a particular flag (even if they claim allegiance to a particular religion) and they are not sanctioned members of any recognized military. Therefore, as rogue agents, these individuals do not have protection under international law. It would be like a Spaniard, arrested in Spain, complaining that he was not read his rights as is done according to U.S. law.

    I point this all out just so we can establish that OBL did not have protection under international law. So an assassination order would be legal in this case. The U.S., as far as I know, has never subscribed to any law saying that we will not ever use assassination. We have a long standing tradition that we will not engage in political assassinations (the last E.O. on that was signed by Reagan and no E.O. overriding it has been signed) but in a time of war, the President, as commander of the armed forces, does have the right to order the execution of enemy combatants instead of their capture. This is not a case where there is a world court whom we recognize as having jurisdiction, because then we would have to recognize that court as having jurisdiction over all terrorists (which has been denied by the U.S.). This is not a case where there was a necessity of holding a military tribunal to determine the guilt and appropriate punishment for a potential terrorist. This was a case where a known terrorist leader who has declared himself to be in open hostilities against America and Americans was located and then executed per the rules of war by our Commander-in-chief who acted under the authority granted him by our Constitution.

  • Robert Slowley

    It’s important to note that this assessment that OBL falls outside of the protection of the Geneva conventions is not thought to be correct by essentially all other analysts of international law and by a great number of professors of law with the US. This is why if you read the CNN article recently about the whole issue they pointed out that there are significant international legal concerns that the US may face depending on how the aim of the operation is understood.

  • Andy

    Those are good and well taken points Charlton. However, for me the issue is not whether or not OBL deserved protection under international law, it’s whether or not the breaching of Pakistan’s sovereignty can be as neatly explained away.

    Now, although I’ve asked the question, I do believe that the Obama administration was in a very difficult spot, and in the end, I am glad they made the decision they did.

  • Jason

    plain and simple. I don’t – and can’t – entertain the opinions of men who don’t hold God’s Word as inerrant and trustworthy. why should I believe N.T. Wright’s misguided view of God’s justice being “finally” revealed in the cross, when he doesn’t trust the inspired Word of God?

  • Jason


    nice. i’m sure you know what i meant. at least i hope so or the school that didn’t teach you about context has failed you miserably.

  • Charlton Connett


    You are correct that the issue of going into Pakistan is still a significant issue. To be honest I hadn’t even thought to address that, and I’m not sure I’m currently equipped to answer that question (as far as my knowledge of international law goes). Your point is well taken also that, ultimately, I am satisfied with the result of the operation, though I cannot fully justify every aspect of it. I do think a reasoned defense from the U.S. gov’t for violating another country’s border should be presented though.

  • Tim Webb

    Wow. I’m a Christian, and I’ve been uncomfortable all week with the national euphoria in the USA about the killing of bin Laden. I believe in the Triune God, inerrancy, etc., but I guess I must be a liberal?

  • Jason

    No Tim,

    Sorry for the confusion. I should have phrased my first post to say while I don’t agree with their reasons, I also don’t like the way it all went down either. Only point I was trying to make is that its ironic to see someone who doesn’t believe the Bible is inerrant, use the Bible to make a justification one way or the other for something.

  • Nate


    I did read your link and if you go back and read it you would find that it backs exactly what I have been trying to tell you. International Law CANNOT trump the U.S. Constitution. If America agrees to a treaty or resolution it cannot breach what is in the Constitution, so I don’t really see how you can continue to imply that International Law can govern the United States. For example, no person would be extradicted from the U.S. for committing a crime in the U.S. where International Law carried a different penalty. That person would be tried under U.S. Law and would not be held responsible for International Law.

    Andy: Your statement…
    “The argument can be made that without international law, there would be no real sovereignty for anyone. The only sovereign nations would be those strong enough to impose their will on others and withstand the same imposition by others.”

    What do you think has happened historically prior to the end of WWII? Do you think nations and national sovereignty didn’t exist because International Law didn’t exist? And yes, when the British attacked the United States in the War of 1812 it was one sovereign nation (Britian) trying to impose its will on another (U.S.). We won and are still a Sovereign nation. What do you think war is about?

    Just because the U.S. deals in treaties for goods and services and yes, even military alliances, does not mean we are bound for eternity on those. We can pull out of NAFTA any time we want. We will not lose our sovereignty by doing so.

  • Kevin C

    While I agree with the decision that was made, i find it laughable that a guy who won the nobel peace prize a year ago has now ordered a succesful assassination.

  • KSR

    McCheynes Bible Reading Pattern includes James 2 today. Verse 13 caught my eye:

    For judgement is without mercy to one who has shown no mercy. Mercy triumphs over judgement.

    Still meditating on the interplay between both statements. Might be eisegesis, but the verse seemed relevant.

  • Derek

    I always suspected that NT Wright has a deep seated conviction that America is fundamentally wrong about most everything, especially with regard to theology and politics.

    This confirms it.

  • Chris

    As a Christian, I’m uncomfortable with the tone of many American Christians here (I’m American) as there seems to be such a pro-war stance. Just war (I know it’s not the topic, but it underlies everything that is taking place) was never preemptive. There is no biblical defense for preemptive war. This war truly is now seen as a Christian war, which is very sad and does not glorify God or help spread God’s Word and Kingdom.

  • Tom

    I am delighted to have bin Laden dead, and I have no criticism for the SEAL team who killed him.

    Should we have taken bin Laden alive? I wish we had. Putting bin Laden on trial with a full complement of U.S. constitutional rights would have been the ultimate demonstration of who we are as Americans. A pity that opportunity is lost.

    Should we criticize those who killed bin Laden? If the man who pulled the trigger thought for even a moment that his life or the lives of fellow SEALs were at risk, the killing was justified.

    For those who believe in international law, the incident demonstrates the severe limits they face. It’s a farce to think America could have served an arrest warrant in these circumstances. To catch bin Laden, America had no choice but to act illegally. And yes, we violated international law by launching this incursion into Pakistan.

    For those so dismissive of international law, you are left with nothing more than an eye for an eye and, as Gandhi said: An eye for an eye leaves the whole world blind.

    To any Christian who celebrates bin Laden’s death, I wonder how you can call yourself a Christian. And for any Christian who condemns the killing, I trust you are equally Christian regarding every killing, though I doubt it. Fortunately, I am not bound by such beliefs.

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