When a team of Navy SEALs killed Osama bin Laden in May, most Americans felt a sense of relief. He was truly a dedicated purveyor of violence, a manipulator and distorter of religion for political purposes, and a man responsible for the deaths of thousands of innocent people. Nevertheless, it is never a Christian response to celebrate the death of any human being, as many did, even one so given over to evil. Violence is always an indication of our failure to resolve our conflicts by peaceful means and an occasion for deeper reflection.
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The Bible takes evil seriously and clearly says that evildoers should be held accountable for their deeds, and that the state has the legitimate role of bringing to justice those who perpetrate terrible crimes. Osama bin Laden was perhaps the most recognizable face of terrorism in our time. But killing him has certainly not ended the threat of terrorism. And it also did not vindicate the decade of war, the tragic U.S. response to the attacks on 9/11 that has resulted in thousands of other innocent casualties in both Afghanistan and Iraq.
More innocent civilians have become the "collateral damage" of our wars on terrorism than those who suffered the direct assault on civilians by bin Laden’s al Qaeda assassins on Sept. 11. This fact is a grave moral failing by the standards of just war theory, which is at least given lip service in most churches.
Indeed, one of the biggest problems of war is how indiscriminate it is. And it is worth noting that the Special Forces action that resulted in the death of bin Laden was a focused effort to bring one perpetrator to justice, rather than just another act of war. Bin Laden was not a casualty of bombing raids or drone attacks; instead, his death was the result of long and careful intelligence, good detective work, and a laser-like focus on the man most responsible for 9/11. It showed the effectiveness of these "policing activities" compared to the endless wars of occupation that have proven so ineffective and costly in human and financial terms.
The completion of the largest manhunt in history could be a turning point to completely rethink our response to terrorism. The threats of terrorists are still real, but it is increasingly clear that full-scale military action is not the most effective response. There is no more room for excuses. The war in Afghanistan -- now the longest war in U.S. history -- no longer has any moral, financial, or strategic justification. Christians, along with other people of good moral sense, must lead the effort to finally end this war and bring the troops home.
The death of bin Laden must also become a pivotal moment of reflection. The violence of terrorism, the violence of war, and even violent reprisal should push us to deeper reflection, and even repentance, for how we have allowed the seeds of such destruction to take root and grow in our hearts and in our world.
How do we best respond to evil and those who perpetrate it? What have we learned in the last 10 years about what is the best answer to the violence of terrorism? How do we change the conditions and grievances that allow terrorists to pull others into their agenda? In this fallen world we are often faced with imperfect choices in response to the clear dangers of evil. Religious wisdom always has us look also at ourselves and what opportunities we have to be makers of peace. The death of bin Laden could be a critical moment in our efforts to resist evil and seek good and to turn away from the logic of both terrorism and war.
Even before the Navy SEALs found him, it was already becoming clear that bin Laden was losing. The Arab Spring of young Arabs and Muslims working through nonviolent democratic movements has been, in part, a repudiation of bin Laden's radical terrorist agenda. We can be hopeful that the face of the Arab world might now become the young nonviolent activists for democracy, rather than the self-righteous smirk of a self-promoting video character who tells us he is going to kill our children if we don’t submit to his hateful agenda.
As long as bin Laden remained at large and able to launch his hateful rhetoric, we seemed stuck in failed wars as our best response to terrorism. But perhaps with him now gone and rendered irrelevant, we can turn the page on the 10-year trauma of 9/11 and find better ways to settle our conflicts, defend ourselves, and undermine the threats against peace.
What must be said, especially as we now approach the 10th anniversary of 9/11, is that America is not, nor has it ever been, at war with Islam or the Muslim world. As many have pointed out, many of the victims of bin Laden and the al Qaeda network have been Muslims, both in the U.S. and around the world. It is time to unite our many faiths around a serious strategy to learn again together, as the Bible says, to find the things "that make for peace."
Jim Wallis is editor-in-chief of Sojourners.