Saturday, 7 May 2011

Williams and Wright are right

Part of the role of church leaders is to speak truth to power and to raise moral and ethical concerns about public policy and action at national and international level. It was therefore no surprise when Archbishop Rowan Williams was asked to comment on the death/execution of Osama bin Laden last week at a press conference. The Telegraph reported ++Rowan’s response to the question of whether he thought it was right for the United States to kill the al-Qaeda leader:
I think the killing of an unarmed man is always going to leave a very uncomfortable feeling, because it doesn’t look as if justice is seen to be done in those circumstances.
I think it’s also true that the different versions of events that have emerged in recent days have not done a great deal to help here.
Critics have weighed in, including Cristina Odone again in The Telegraph:
Archbishop Williams is a fine man, a good man. But he is dead wrong here. Summary execution, ie killing without trial, is just desserts for some tyrants. And Osama, the hate merchant and death peddler, was a tyrant to rank with some of the worst. His fate should be no better than theirs.
…when he (Williams) addresses the nation, as he did this morning, he should not speak as a Guardian reader but as a religious leader. And as such, surely he sees that drawing parallels between Osama and any other unarmed man is a mistake.
I would suggest to Odone that ++Rowan did exactly as she had requested, he had spoken as a religious leader raising moral questions about justice and perception. Actions have ethical implications and unless these implications are carefully thought through then the action may simply exacerbate a situation.

However, the article that really stirred up the hornets nest was N.T. Wright’s comment piece in The Guardian. Wright raised the question of whether the United States seemed to apply different standards to its own behaviour in the international arena to those applied to everyone else. Again this seems to me to be a perfectly reasonable question to raise because the killing of bin Laden involved an incursion into another country, Pakistan, without that country’s knowledge or permission. Wright asked how the United States would feel if the British SAS had run covert operations into its territory to kill IRA terrorists using the U.S. as a haven?

Wright describes U.S. international policy as:
American exceptionalism. America is subject to different rules to the rest of the world. By what right? Who says?
The former Bishop of Durham suggests that this approach reflects the acting out of the Myth of the American Super Hero. The U.S. as the world’s self appointed saviour battling injustice and sorting out the bad guys. In this scenario the U.S. is free therefore to take the law into its own hands to execute justice in its own best interest.

The problem with such an approach which, if operating in disregard of international law, can be seen as little more that vigilantism is that it removes the moral basis for challenging others countries that decide to operate in a similar way:
Of course, proper justice is hard to come by internationally. America regularly casts the UN (and the international criminal court) as the hapless sheriff, and so continues to play the world's undercover policeman. The UK has gone along for the ride. What will we do when new superpowers arise and try the same trick on us?
As far as I am aware neither Williams or Wright were excusing or apologising for bin Laden or denying that he should be brought to account for his actions. Rather they were highlighting the legitimate moral concerns of executing a terrorist in another sovereign territory without due process and drawing attention to the potential consequences of such an action which might create more problems that it solves.


Sue D said...

I'm glad you said this. I agree!

GladPlodder said...

Yes, indeed. The world needs this prophetic ministry.

Pam said...

'American exceptionalism' was satirised by the makers of South Park in 'Team America' in the scene at the start of the film where the Eiffel Tower is flattened and numerous Parisian bystanders shot dead in the pursuit of terrorists.

I was rather surprised to see various commentators - Christian and non-Christian - taking ++ Rowan to task for reflecting thoughtfully on the shooting of Bin Laden.

I remember Robert Runcie came in for similar criticism when he refused to 'Rejoice! Rejoice!' at the conclusion of the Falklands expedition, focusing instead on the loss of life.

Truly prophetic ministry is never going to win you many friends. That's why anyone who embarks on it needs and deserves our prayers.

Revsimmy said...

Well said, Phil. It disturbs me that other Christians seem to think ++Rowan and +Tom should not be raising these highly moral questions. What New Testament are they reading? And does Cristina Odone really intend us to believe that Osama bin Laden is so totally unique amongst humankind?

Pam, also very good points.

Revd John P Richardson said...

Of course the other possibility is to say that the Americans did the right thing and should have accepted the actions of eg the SAS in Gibraltar way back in the 1980s in shooting dead an active IRA cell preparing to bomb the Marines band.

I doubt that many of the people killed by drone attacks whilst travelling in cars are actually armed at the time, or whether anyone thinks to check. So the same question presumably arises there.

The difference with OBL in that it just might have been possible to capture him. But that he was a terrorist leader involved in terrorism no one seems to be denying.

The question then becomes whether a country which is on the receiving end of terrorism acts justifiably when killing terrorists, wherever they may be, whether they are armed or not.

In regular warfare, sadly, it is not considered normal to give the other guy a chance to pick up a gun if you have a chance to kill him and not always possible to give him the chance to surrender even when unarmed.

The truth is, law can never legislate what is completely 'moral', especially in such circumstances.

On balance, I think what the Americans (and the SAS) did was understandable and defendable provided you accept the notion of war.

Whether it was wise is another thing, but it will always involve moral compromise.

Revsimmy said...


"Whether it was wise is another thing, but it will always involve moral compromise."

As it happens, I am inclined to agree with you. But this does not mean that ++Rowan and +Tom are wrong to remind us of the moral compromises here, which is, to me, what their comments amount to. Their critics seem to resent the fact that they have so reminded us.