Archbishop Nichols is right not to comment on Bin Laden’s killing

Soldiers keep guard outside the compound where Osama bin Laden was killed (CNS photo/Faisal Mahmood, Reuters)

There has been more than enough commentary on the death of Osama bin Laden, much of it fuelled by the strange inconsistencies in the story, a story which, up to now, has not yet assumed its final shape. It is in itself remarkable that the US government did not sit down and get all the details it wished to announce into some sort of order, before announcing that Bin Laden was dead. It would not have taken long, and could quite easily have been done. As it is huge questions remain. This one will run and run.

The moral aspects of the story came to the fore when the Archbishop of Canterbury was questioned on whether the killing of Bin Laden was right or not. This is how the Archbishop’s response was reported in the Daily Telegraph:

At a press conference at Lambeth Palace, The Daily Telegraph asked Dr Williams whether he thought the US had been right to kill Bin Laden.
After declining to respond initially, he later replied: “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. I don’t know full details any more than anyone else does. But I do believe that in such circumstances when we are faced with someone who was manifestly a war criminal, in terms of the atrocities inflicted, it is important that justice is seen to be observed.”

There are two interesting things to note here. The first is that the archbishop is not talking about justice but the appearance of justice, or justice being “seen to be done”. That is rather an important distinction. It might mean that the archbishop is not criticising the killing of Bin Laden but rather the way Bin Laden was killed; in other words, he is regretting the way this act appears to the world, perhaps even to the Muslim world. The second thing to note is the phrase “after declining to respond initially”. Presumably the press conference was about something else, and the archbishop was taken off his guard. Well, if he did not want to comment on the matter, he was in good company. The Vatican has said nothing about the morality of the killing, only about the morality of celebrating someone’s death.

And from the same Telegraph report we have the following: “A spokesman for Archbishop Vincent Nichols, the head of the Roman Catholic Church in England and Wales, said the Church would not be commenting on the killing of the al-Qaeda leader.”

This is in fact the correct reaction, and the reason lies in what Rowan Williams is quoted as saying above. We do not know the facts; or at least the facts are at present hard to discern clearly. Any judgment about the morality of this killing will depend on the circumstances in which it took place. And while the circumstances are unclear, we have nothing on which to base a judgment. Therefore it is best at present to say nothing.