I recently had a discussion about the killing of Bin Laden. One point that was raised was that the raid was actually an act of murder because no one in his house was armed and no resistance was offered to the Seals. This point was used by one person to argue that the Seals committed murder.
One point worth considering is the source of the claim that there was no resistance.When I asked about this, I was informed that two Pakistani officials have made this claim and described it as “cold-blooded.” My initial response was the obvious: Pakistani officials are rather lacking in credibility regarding Bin Laden. After all, they have told the world for years that they had no idea where he was located. It is important to note that I am not rejecting their claims on the basis of an ad hominem. Rather, I am suspicious of their claims on the basis of assessing the officials quality as reliable authorities in this matter.
However, let it be assumed that Bin Laden and his fellows were unarmed and did not resist. While killing unarmed people who are offering no resistance can be regarded as rather cold-blooded, it need not be murder. After all, while murder is a type of killing, not all killings are murder. On the face of it, murder would seem to be intuitively defined as a wrongful killing. This sort of definition is typically used to distinguish capital punishment from murder. In the case of capital punishment, one stock argument is that the person killed has been found guilty of a crime and that the just punishment is death. Since the death is not, in theory, wrongful, it is not murder. Naturally, a multitude of objections can be raised against capital punishment, but there does seem to be an important theoretical distinction between murdering a person and killing a person in the process of justice.Obviously enough, capital punishment is generally inflicted on a person who is unarmed and who typically offers no resistance. As such, the death of Bin Laden could be regarded as capital punishment rather than murder. Under Locke’s view of capital punishment, the killing of Bin Laden would seem to morally correct-after all, Bin Laden showed himself to be an enemy of humanity and thus could be destroyed like a dangerous animal.
If the capital punishment argument does not float, the matter of war can be used. Killing occurs in war, however it is generally not classified as murder provided that the appropriate rules of war are followed. While killing people who are not armed is generally looked down on, snipers are not tried as criminals when they shoot unarmed and “unresisting” targets-provided that those targets are otherwise legitimate. Taking out high value assets (such as commanders) is also considered legitimate in war, even when those targets are not wielding weapons.
It might be countered that soldiers are expected to take prisoners and hence killing Bin Laden was an act of murder, even in the context of war. Of course, the ethics of taking prisoners does include the fact that the soldiers are not morally required to take great risks merely to keep an enemy alive. Since Bin Laden was clearly a legitimate target and it seems likely that getting him out of Pakistan alive would have been rather difficult, it would seem that the soldiers would be morally justified in killing him on the spot rather than risking their own lives needlessly and putting their mission at risk.
I do recognize that there is something morally problematic about killing an unarmed person. It could be argued that even if he appeared unarmed, past experience has shown that terrorists use explosive vests and hence it does make sense to shoot a known terrorist in the head when there is a chance he is loaded with explosives. It could also be argued that in the real world (as opposed to movies) it makes no sense to let an enemy arm himself when you can shoot him before he can shoot back. Speaking of movies, if Bin Laden was unarmed, then that seems to have been a poor decision on his part:
Little Bill Daggett: “Well, sir, you are a cowardly son of a bitch! You just shot an unarmed man!”
Will Munny: “Well, he should have armed himself if he’s going to decorate his saloon with my friend.”
This situation is a tough one. However, I think that my considered opinion is best put by the professor who taught me about military ethics: “some people you just have to kill.”