The killing of Osama Bin Laden made some people rejoice and some people concerned. The rejoicers, many in the United States, were those who recognised the symbolic status of a man committed to terrorist atrocity as a political and religious weapon, and the equally symbolic status of the process by which he was relentlessly hunted down and punished. It is satisfying to think that people who sponsor indiscriminate mass murder will not be allowed to get away with it.
But those who are concerned have a serious point to make. The United States is a democracy which says that it is committed to human rights and the rule of law. This commitment should be indivisible and exceptionless. Serious commitment to human rights and the rule of law is an onerous, time consuming and often messy business, but it is a matter of principle, and principle cannot be overridden by convenience if one is serious about the principle.
The killing of Osama Bin Laden had much to recommend it from a pragmatic point of view. Shooting him like a mad dog, which is what is functional terms he was, probably saved lives in the long run, because if he had remained alive and been taken to Guantanamo or some such place for a lengthy trial, the riots and demonstrations and increased terrorist activity would almost certainly have had bloody results. Moreover his martyr status would have been enhanced, and wherever he was and whatever punished was meted out, he would have been a running focus of attention for years more, keeping alive the political inflammation he causes.
All this is easy to predict, because so much Islamist political and religious sentiment is infantile and simplistic, violent in language and emotion and too often in action. Only look at reaction to the Danish newspaper cartoons: most people in the West were deeply offended by the attack on free speech mounted by intemperate crowds of shrieking intolerant people threatening murder and mayhem: but we did not riot or issue threats of beheadings in response. Instead we iterated our view: that it is wrong to offend those who cannot choose their sex, sexuality, age, disability or ethnicity, but as regards matters of choice – your politics, religion, fashion sense – it is open season: you have no right to be protected form the criticism or disagreement of others, and must rely on having a good case to make in response, if you have not got a good case, that is your own problem.
So the pragmatic case for killing Bin Laden is that it will undoubtedly save lives and huge amounts of trouble. This is true. But it is not the point: in the perspective of history the trouble would have been relatively short-lived, but the long term outcome would have been immensely good: Western civilization with its commitment to rights and due process would have maintained its noble and demanding commitment in this respect, and would have kept alight the beacon that it tries to show to the rest of the world. How can we urge rights and the rule of law on others, and yet, acting as despots and thugs do, assassinate people because it is more convenient? How can the leaders of a major democracy behave like a Syrian or Libyan dictator? This is a simple but devastating question, and the United States gave it the wrong answer when it shot an unarmed man in the head because putting him on trial would have been costly.
Principles are indeed costly in the medium term. In the long term interests of civilisation, these costs are the ones most worth paying.