Should We Have Preserved the Life of Osama Bin Laden?

Church opposition to the death penalty stems from the fifth commandment: Thou shalt not kill. In recognizing society’s right to protect itself, the Catechism of the Catholic Church summarizes: “If bloodless means are sufficient to defend human lives against an aggressor and to protect public order and the safety of persons, public authority should limit itself to such means” (#605). Pope John Paul II further acknowledges in Evangelium Vitae (1995) that though capital punishment is permissible when there is no other way to defend society, “as a result of steady improvements in the organization of the penal system, such cases are very rare, if not practically nonexistent” today (#56). Did Osama Bin Laden present one of those very rare cases? The question remains under debate. While the raid that killed him was framed as a military operation against an active combatant, in which the use of lethal force can sometimes be justified, many Catholic commentators have expressed concerns about the circumstances of his death. As the editors of Commonweal wrote in June 2011, “the greater triumph of justice would have been to put such a criminal on trial rather than to end his life under such highly ambiguous circumstances.”