So Osama bin Laden is dead. I can’t get as excited and happy about this as some people . He inspired murderous activity on a large scale, but it isn’t self evident to me that the U.S. government is entitled to execute him without trial. However, I recognize I’m in a minority in questioning this, and I could be wrong.
How do you know if a belief that feels good, that lines up with your predilections and hopes, is wrong? You can’t, really. There’s no measuring device that infallibly separates truth from fantasy. But you can stress test ideas to some extent. You can ask yourself, could this idea be wrong, even though it is appealing? Could the pleasantness of an idea make it difficult to see its weaknesses? If the idea is popular and widespread, could it be that fear of unpopularity, of separation from the group, quiets critical thinking about it? You can also ask yourself, is there any evidence supporting this idea, or supporting the opposite of this idea? What is the evidence on both sides?
Given that Osama bin Laden was one of the people responsible for the murderous activities of September 11, 2001, how do we determine whether killing him without trial is the right thing to do? On the one hand, it accords with the idea of fair retribution, of an eye for an eye. And revenge is undeniably satisfying. But we could consider other values and issues. Killing humans is, in general, wrong, right? Due process is, in general, a good thing, right? Viewed in instrumental terms, we could ask, is the net effect of killing him likelier to be to reduce terrorist activity, or increase it? Does killing him without trial confer on him martyr status and amplify his message, or does it discourage those inclined to follow him so that they give up?
It’s hard to resolve these questions. But it’s verifiable that the War on Terror that the US declared in response to bin Laden’s crime has caused enormous misery. Persons killed: more than a million. Dollars spent in foreign military operations: $1.2 trillion and counting. Total pain from wounds and post-traumatic stress: unknown, but clearly enormous. Total productivity lost and indignities and annoyance caused by airport searches: don’t ask. Terrorism plots thwarted in the US: a tiny number. Lives saved in the US that would otherwise have been lost: not many.
The War on Terror has achieved very little in terms of making us safer, and wasted many lives and much wealth. One product, of course, is that we killed Osama bin Laden. OK, I say. Let’s make the best of things, and declare victory in the War on Terror. Let’s just say we won. Now the War can end. Let’s bring the troops home, and redeploy our resources.