I've been thinking about Osama Bin Laden's death for a few days, and the global response to it. As I posted a few days ago on an American blog, I'm rather uncomfortable with many aspects of it.
I won't pretend that the world's slightly better off without him: he was a mass murderer driven by a mix of religious and nationalist fundamentalism.
However: the test of a civilisation isn't how well it treats the masses: it's how well it treats the worst and most hated elements of society. A confident and proud America would have arrested bin Laden and put him on trial. Perhaps the circumstances required shooting him in self-defence - we'll never know. If not, then this evil man's death smacks more of mob justice.
I'm opposed to the death penalty and to lynch mobs. These are principles which shouldn't be suspended according to the heinous degree of the crime. Rowan Williams, Archbishop of Canterbury, expressed his reservations about the shooting of an unarmed man. I think he's got it right: whoever the individual is, the agents of a state have to adhere to a higher moral code than the person standing in front of them. Bin Laden killed thousands: shooting him dead on the spot is a surrender to his own philosophy, not a termination of it.
The operation to locate bin Laden should count as a masterpiece of planning and operation. However: I can't get rid of the uncomfortable suspicion that bin Laden's death was a pragmatic decision taken by a President who needs the 'tough guy' kudos in an election year. Putting the man on trial would have been the morally and legally right thing to do - but it would have been judicially difficult and politically impossible (especially given that bin Laden and his associates were the creation of the Pakistani, Saudi, American and even British intelligence services, trained and armed as part of the proxy war against the Soviet Union).
Bin Laden's death will increase the likelihood of Obama's re-election. In utilitarian terms, this is probably a good thing. One man died that millions of Americans won't get a Republican president with all the awful consequences of that. In Kantian terms though, Osama's death is an absolute immoral act because consequences shouldn't be taken into consideration. Either bin Laden was a direct threat to the lives of the people in that room or he wasn't. If he was, his death was justified. If not, then shooting him was immoral.
In the real world, nobody is going to mourn bin Laden, least of all the hard-nosed political strategists surrounding Obama and his rivals. But there should be room still to consider the moral implications, and they leave me cold.