Support First Things by turning your adblocker off or by making a  donation. Thanks!

Here in New York, as you might expect, the news of Osama bin Laden’s death was mostly greeted with fist-pumping expressions of satisfaction. Some, however, have expressed dismay. As our executive editor David Mills noted on these electronic pages, not a few European commentators have denounced the killing of Osama bin Laden as yet another example of the cowboy mentality in America that shoots first and asks questions later. What we should have done, they say, is arrest bin Laden and put him on trial.

At first glance, it seems that the critics have the moral high ground. Nearly everyone accepts that bin Laden was a wicked man who ought to be punished. But isn’t the formal apparatus of properly administered justice”authorized arrest, restrained use of force, procedurally structured trial, and officially sanctioned punishment”superior to the rough justice administered by the Navy Seals?

What seems so is not always so, and many critics of the strike authorized by President Obama exemplify a perennial temptation: to champion what is ideal, and in so doing undermine what is possible.

I have a great deal of experience with this temptation. I’ll argue for the ideal, but blinded by my vision of perfection ignore the circumstances and denounce those who recognize the need for compromises. The all too frequent result: My views are rejected as unrealistic, and more ruthless, practical men gain control.

During the last presidential campaign and after the election, Obama and his supporters denounced Guantanamo and the anti-terrorism policies it represents. There were subtle legal arguments, some of which doubtless had merit. But for the most part the ongoing objections to Guantanamo and all that it represents (detaining suspects without charges, military tribunals, “enhanced” interrogation, and so forth) amounts to a claim that America should be on the side of “real” justice rather than “rogue” or “cowboy” justice.

It all sounds very morally superior, but the Obama administration, wrote a former U.S. attorney general last October in the Wall Street Journal , “seems to present us only with the choice that we kill [terrorists] with drones or give them Miranda warnings and access to a 24-karat justice system designed for conventional criminals.” Substitute Noam Chomsky or your favorite columnist at the Guardian newspaper in Britain for “the government,” and make the “them” into “him,” and Michael Mukasey’s formulation provides a succinct description of the moral terrain that the dreamy internationalism and legalistic fantasies of the left (mostly, though not exclusively) created with it’s shrill denunciations of Guantanamo and other Bush era policies. The cry has been, in essence, “We demand 24-karat justice.”

This has created political pressure to minimize and weaken the emergence of a form of legality that, however imperfect, can actually function to bring justice to people like Osama bin Laden. Many critics thought this a moral gain. A bad system has been de-legitimized! But the virtue of justice is practical, not theoretical.

A 24-karat justice glitters, but those who demand it when it cannot be found end up condemning what is imperfect but feasible without providing a viable alternative. As Mukasey suggests, an inflexible demand for perfect justice often ensures that justice is not done at all, because those who have to make the political decisions will end up dismissing justice as impractical.

Thus the actual and unexpected result of denunciations of a Guantanamo-oriented approach: Our political leaders have few practical options other than assassination. It’s a morally impoverished situation that lends itself to greater injustice”and it’s one that irresponsible calls for justice have done a great deal to create.

Decades ago, as a young pastor in Detroit, Reinhold Neibuhr didn’t foresee our war on terror, but he recognized the tendency of a moral idealism to do more harm than good. We should have ideals, thought Neibuhr, but we shouldn’t let them paralyze us in our efforts to achieve an always relative, always temporary justice in practical affairs. Rejecting the inevitable compromises and imperfections and injustices of workable plans, policies, and initiatives out of a superior loyalty to an ideal is a sign of self-complimenting moralism, not Christian responsibility.

No morally serious person can imagine that, given present political, social, and legal reality, someone like bin Laden can be tried in a criminal court in New York, or for that matter in the Hague. It’s irresponsible to suggest otherwise, even if one’s irresponsibility is expressed by way of lofty appeals to legality and justice. Indeed, the suggestion works against justice, because it encourages a lack of moral realism that makes amoral realism seem like the only realistic option.

An Obama administration spokesman has indicated that, if circumstances had permitted, bin Laden would have been taken captive. I don’t doubt that to be true. But I would be shocked if the soldiers were not briefed to read those circumstances very narrowly.

For although I disagree with many of the moral and political views of Obama and his advisors, I’m fairly confident of their intelligence and commitment to defend both America and the international order against the moral nihilism of Islamic terrorism. A captive bin Laden would have been a massive political liability, not only domestically, but also internationally”precisely because we have no workable legal mechanisms to bring him to justice, mechanisms that have a modicum of credibility and do not put whole populations at risk.

Obama recognized as much, thankfully. The job of the morally serious critic? Get to work designing alternatives that, in the future, an American president can actually use. First stop: Talk to John Yoo, someone who knows what it means to take responsibility for designing workable alternatives to the unworkable fantasy of 24-karat justice. You’ll get some legal ideas for him, as well as some good counsel about how much moral courage it will take to endure the condemnations of the moral purists.

R.R. Reno is Editor of First Things . He is the general editor of the Brazos Theological Commentary on the Bible and author of the volume on Genesis . His previous “On the Square” articles can be found here .


Michael Mukasey’s How a Bagram Detainee Foiled the Euro Terror Plot” from the Wall Street Journal of October 8, 2010.

Comments are visible to subscribers only. Log in or subscribe to join the conversation.



Filter Web Exclusive Articles

Related Articles