Tom Wright comments on the death of Osama bin Laden

Professor N T Wright previously bishop of Durham (also known as Tom Wright)

Tom Wright has weighed in behind the Archbishop of Canterbury with concerns about the killing of Osama bin Laden. He questions whether the way that the United States has acted would be accepted by them.

He does raise some important questions but I also think that there are some problems with it as well.

I don’t think that he takes seriously the size of the outrages planned by Osama bin Laden. Thousands killed in 9/11 and hundreds killed previously in other attacks. The other thing is that the US does have troops in Afghanistan next door to Pakistan and is supposed to have a relationship with them to hunt down the Al Qaeda and Taliban.

It is far more akin to the UK sending troops or special forces into Ireland from Northern Ireland during the Troubles.

And that never happened?

Anyway, here is his quote, what do you think?

(Rt Revd Prof N T Wright, formerly Bishop of Durham, now Professor of New Testament and Early Christianity at the University of St Andrews)

Consider the following scenario. A group of IRA terrorists carry out a bombing raid in London. People are killed and wounded. The group escapes, first to Ireland, then to the United States, where they disappear into the sympathetic hinterland of a country where IRA leaders have in the past been welcomed at the White House. Britain cannot extradite them, because of the gross imbalance of the relevant treaty. So far, this is not far from the truth.
But now imagine that the British government, seeing the murderers escape justice, sends an aircraft carrier (always supposing we’ve still got any) to the Nova Scotia coast. From there, unannounced, two helicopters fly in under the radar to the Boston suburb where the terrorists are holed up. They carry out a daring raid, killing the (unarmed) leaders and making their escape. Westminster celebrates; Washington is furious.
What’s the difference between this and the recent events in Pakistan? Answer: American exceptionalism. America is allowed to do it, but the rest of us are not. By what right? Who says?
Consider another fictive scenario. Gangsters are preying on a small mid-western town. The sheriff and his deputies are spineless; law and order have failed. So the hero puts on a mask, acts ‘extra-legally’, performs the necessary redemptive violence (i.e. kills the bad guys), and returns to ordinary life, earning the undying gratitude of the local townsfolk, sheriff included. This is the plot of a thousand movies, comic-book strips, and TV shows: Captain America, the Lone Ranger, and (upgraded to hi-tech) Superman. The masked hero saves the world.
Films and comics with this plot-line have been named as favourites by most Presidents, as Robert Jewett and John Shelton Lawrence pointed out in The Myth of the American Superhero (2002) and Captain America and the Crusade Against Evil (2004). The main reason President Obama has been cheered to the echo across the US, even by his bitter opponents, is not simply the fully comprehensible sense of closure a decade after the horrible, wicked actions of September 11 2001. Underneath that, he has just enacted one of America’s most powerful myths.
Perhaps the myth was necessary in the days of the Wild West, of isolated frontier towns and roaming gangs. But it legitimizes a form of vigilantism, of taking the law into one’s own hands, which provides ‘justice’ only of the crudest sort. In the present case, the ‘hero’ fired a lot of stray bullets in Iraq and Afghanistan before he got it right. What’s more, such actions invite retaliation. They only ‘work’ because the hero can shoot better than the villain; but the villain’s friends may decide on vengeance. Proper justice is designed precisely to outflank such escalation.
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? And what has any of this to do with something most Americans also believe, that the God of ultimate justice and truth was fully and finally revealed in the crucified Jesus of Nazareth, who taught people to love their enemies, and warned that those who take the sword will perish by the sword?
Here is a video of Rowan Williams comments
Ruth Gledhill managed to get to this first.
Update. The Guardian has also published Tom Wright’s comments as an article

7 comments on “Tom Wright comments on the death of Osama bin Laden

  1. Janet
    May 5, 2011 at 11:34 pm #

    Yes, I am troubled about the killing of Osama Bin Laden. I am a U.S. citizen. It was my country which was attacked and yet I was not living in the U.S. at the time and I did not realize the very powerful impact that that attack made on ordinary citizens and especially on the many who lost loved ones on that dreadful day. It was only 3 years later that I happened to hear a first hand account from a New Yorker who was caught up in the panic engendered by the attack.

    Now, my sister, an ordinary peace abiding person, who would not condone violence, still she feels that it is right that Bin Laden was killed. And when she heard the breaking news late on Sunday night, she was so stirred emotionally that she could not sleep at all – most unusual for her.

    We are of the generation that had the attack on Pearl Harbour. I still remember that day. It’s not a true comparison yet there are some parallels. And so the moral debate will go on.

    I’m not sure where I stand, but I don’t think the answer I feel comfortable with lies in the taking of Bin Laden’s life in the way that it happened.

    • Will Cookson
      May 6, 2011 at 6:55 am #

      Janet, I am not surprised. There is a lot of ambivalence about how it happened. Interestingly at the end of WW2 I’ve heard that the British wanted to summarily execute the Nazi leaders. It was the US that demanded that they be put on trial – which was obviously right.

      I’m not sure what went through the minds of the US leadership. Did they think that he might be booby-trapped? I think that most commentators believe that Pakistan is “looking both ways” on terrorism and that is why they didn’t involve them.

      I suppose that my ideal would have been that he was captured and put on trial for something like crimes against humanity. Even better would have being tried in an international court.

      However, he was a vicious terrorists who has caused thousands and thousands of innocents to die around the world. I am more concerned for all those around the world who have died through his agenda. Women. Children. People going around their business with no expectation of suddenly being killed by madmen.

      So, like you I am ambivalent.

  2. relewis
    May 6, 2011 at 3:32 am #

    Where did you find Tom Wright’s quote? I couldn’t locate it.

    • Will Cookson
      May 6, 2011 at 6:46 am #

      The link is just under the video – you may have missed it! It was posted on Ruth Gledhill’s blog – she is the religious affairs correspondent for the Times newspaper.

  3. TheEvangelicalLiberal
    May 6, 2011 at 9:07 am #

    I think Rowan Williams and Tom Wright are right to raise these questions and cautions amidst the general jubilation at bin Laden’s death. Of course the issue is highly complicated as well as highly emotive, and I’m not sure there is a perfect answer in this imperfect world. But there do have to be questions raised when an unarmed man – whoever he is and whatever he’s done – is executed (assassinated?) in an undercover raid. As Rowan says, it doesn’t feel right. The US government had a right to bring bin Laden to justice for what he’d done, but in the manner of their actions they’ve muddied the waters and lost much of the moral high ground in this case.

  4. TheEvangelicalLiberal
    May 6, 2011 at 2:10 pm #

    PS I’ve now blogged about this as well, from a slightly different angle:

  5. Wm. Chase
    May 9, 2011 at 4:30 am #

    It is truly a sad day for the U.S and for that matter the whole frre world. For the longest time truth and justice was our hold on the difference between democratic countries and the regimes and communist countries, our commitment to civil rights. As mentioned in earlier posts even the most hated Nazi war criminals were brought to justice and had a day in court. Even though it was know they were guilty, Saddam Hussien was had a day in court, Even the most notorious killers in history, Charles manson, Ted Bundy, Clifford Olsen were all brought to court.
    Yet now President Obama has “legalized” “cold blodded killing of unarmed individuals” , No matter what the reasons this was always what has seperated us from The ones we were being protected from. What precedent does this now set ? If we say you are quilty you and anyone around will be shot on site, without question. How long before this practice carries forward to law and order in the cities and communities at home with local police? All American and citizen of democratic populations need to challenge the manner in which this was handled, Before it starts happening in our own homes.. What right do we now have to question how any country or regime deals with insurgents?

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