This story asks whether it’s wrong to celebrate bin Laden’s death. It quotes, among others, moral philosopher Christine Korsgaard who says:
“Most people believe that the killing we do in war is justified as the only way to disable an enemy whose cause we believe to be unjust…. And although it is more controversial, many people believe, or at least feel, that those who kill deserve to die as retribution for their crimes.
“But if we confuse the desire to defeat an enemy with the desire for retribution against a criminal, we risk forming attitudes that are unjustified and ugly — the attitude that our enemy’s death is not merely a means to disabling him, but is in itself a kind of a victory for us, or perhaps even the attitude that our enemy deserves death because he is our enemy.”
This is an important point. Just war theory–at least in its modern incarnations–holds that the use of force is justified only up to the point of stopping an aggressor. It’s not about meting out justice in the sense of giving someone what they deserve. If it’s possible to stop an act of aggression without killing the aggressor, then just war theory requires we use only the minimum amount of force required to do that. Strictly speaking, any killing is supposed to be an unintended (albeit often forseeable) side-effect of using only the force necessary to disable the enemy.
Of course, in practice it’s often very difficult to determine just where this line is between necessary and excessive force. But observing the distinction would certainly, I think, call into question many of the tactics of modern war. And whether the killing of bin Laden in particular was justified depends on whether it was possible to apprehend or otherwise disable him without killing him. It seems unlikely that we’ll ever know the truth of that for sure. Therefore, from this perspective, we’re not really in a position to say with 100 percent certainty that “justice was done” in the killing of bin Laden.
UPDATE: Just to clarify, I’m not saying that bin Laden didn’t “deserve to die” in some moral sense. What I’m saying is that just war theory, as Christine Korsgaard points out, isn’t about punishment of the guilty so much as setting out the proper conditions for using force to protect the innocent and repel aggression. The question of justice in war is distinct from the question of justice as it relates to bin Laden’s personal guilt and what punishment might be appropriate.