The Unity Death Yields: Assassination Through A Theologian’s Eyes

Paul Griffiths’ Monthly Column on Politics and Society from a Christian Perspective

In a time of intractable political division in America, it’s instructive to observe what unites those on both sides of the divide. Those agreements show the deep grammar of the American experiment, a grammar that structures the thought and speech of both sides. One element in that deep grammar is affirmation of and delight in extraterritorial assassination.

In May 2011, Osama bin Laden, more fully Osama bin Mohammed bin Awad bin Laden al-Hadrami al-Kindi, was killed by US Navy Seals in a compound in Abottabad, Pakistan. The operation was authorized by Barack Obama, sitting President of the United States. There had been unsuccessful attempts to kill bin Laden authorized by Presidents George W. Bush and Bill Clinton; and Obama had declared during the campaign leading to his election in 2008 that killing bin Laden was a central priority of his foreign policy. The principal ground for the killing was that bin Laden had planned the 9/11 attacks on the US, which killed more than 3000 people within the sovereign territory of the US, and that he headed an organization, al-Quaeda, responsible for or implicated in other lethally violent attacks on US citizens, assets, or allies. Bin Laden was not tried; he was not handed over to any judicial system, US or other; he was assassinated extraterritorially by US executive power.

In October 2019, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, more fully Ibrahim Awad Ibrahim Ali al-Badr al-Samarrai (al-Baghdadi is a nom de guerre), killed himself while under attack by US Delta forces in northwestern Syria. The operation was authorized by Donald Trump, who, like Obama, energetically pursued the defeat of ISIS and the killing of its leader, al-Baghdadi. The principal grounds for the attack on al-Baghdadi were that he’d led ISIS in its attempt to establish a new Islamic caliphate, first publicly declared in 2014 and that the US could not tolerate the existence of such a political entity because of its policies and practices. By the late spring of 2019, ISIS had lost all or most of the territory it had once held, mostly because of US-coördinated military action; but that appears not to have reduced Trump’s commitment to having him killed. Al-Baghdadi was not tried; he was not handed over to any judicial system, US or other; he killed himself under immediate threat of extraterritorial assassination by US executive power.

There are differences between these two events, the most significant of which is that bin Laden appears to have been directly killed by the US military, while al-Baghdadi is reported to have killed himself before that could happen. There are, as well, obscurities about both operations unlikely ever to be fully cleared up. Important among these is whether the principal purpose of either or both was to kill their target, or whether extraction and subsequent imprisonment was also among the possible outcomes. There are also obscurities about the extent to which the sovereign states within whose territory the killings took place (Pakistan in bin Laden’s case and Syria in al-Baghdadi’s) were informed about and coöperative with the operations. In the al-Baghdadi case, this obscurity is magnified because the Syrian province in which the killing took place, Idlib, was at the time not fully under the control of the Syrian government.

There are also fundamental similarities between the two operations. They’re both instances of extraterritorial assassination of a foreign national planned and performed by the executive branch of the US government. In each case, the executive branch identified a foreign national (bin Laden was Saudi; al-Baghdadi Iraqi) not present in the sovereign territory of the US; it decided, without trial, even in absentia, and without other legal proceedings, either that the person should be killed or that he should be extracted for subsequent punishment, and then deployed lethal force on foreign territory to make it so. Whatever the degree of coöperation the US received from Pakistan and Syria, and from other sovereign states whose territories were overflown by the military forces charged with performing the operation, this kind of action is at best dubiously legal under international law, and is adequately and appropriately characterized as assassination in the ordinary meaning of that word – the killing of a politically prominent person for political reasons by sudden or secret attack.

A second significant similarity between the two operations is that they were announced by the presidents who’d directed them with a tone and style best characterized as boastfully gleeful; and that they were welcomed by representatives of the legislative branch in both the House and the Senate in bipartisan fashion – at a time when few actions of the executive branch receive such support. Both the assassinations seem to have been welcomed by the citizens of the US, again in bipartisan fashion. The reason for this celebratory response is that bin Laden and al-Baghdadi have been represented to US citizens as enemies of the state, dedicated to its overthrow. Each man has been depicted as advocating and using extraordinarily violent methods (crucifixion, enslavement, beheadings, attempted genocide, and so on) to serve his political purposes.

These characterizations are partly accurate. Bin Laden did plan 9/11; grossly violent methods were and are advocated and used by both ISIS and al-Quaeda. The US has been represented by both ISIS and al-Queda as the incarnation of all that’s politically and morally hateful, just as we’ve represented them. But they obscure as much as they reveal. Both men had interests that had nothing to do with the US, and each, according to his public statements, wanted from the US mainly to be left alone, a favor that the US has not been prepared to grant. Bin Laden often said that he wanted the departure of all foreign troops present on Islamic soil, and that al-Quaeda’s actions against Europeans and Americans would cease when that was achieved. And al-Baghdadi’s main purpose, it seems, was the establishment of an Islamic political entity, a caliphate, on ground far from any US sovereign territory. Those are not, by themselves, actions or policies aimed at the US, however geopolitically problematic the US may find them.

The upshot is that the US is by now, and with the active consent of all branches of its government and the majority of its citizens (at least the majority of those who’ve given the matter any thought), a practitioner of the ancient art of extraterritorial assassination. In that, it’s like La Cosa Nostra; and like contemporary Russia and North Korea, which have also recently undertaken dramatic and significant extraterritorial assassinations. Where it differs from these practitioners, however, is in its public glee. I recall watching Obama’s announcement of bin Laden’s assassination in 2011, and being both shocked and horrified at the lack of texture and nuance in what he said, and at the unrestrainedly celebratory nature of his words. There was only glee, like that of the tabloid press in England which welcomed the sinking of an Argentinian ship by British forces during the Falklands War in the 1980s with the simple headline, ‘Gotcha!’ The same was true, not more and not less, of Trump’s recent announcement of the al-Baghdadi assassination.

It isn’t surprising that the US practices extraterritorial assassination of foreign nationals. It’s done by all sovereign states with the power to do it and with geopolitical interests that make sense of doing it. What’s surprising is that we in the US no longer hide it, but instead celebrate it. Before our current century, when we Americans did such things, which we often did, we pretended we hadn’t. We hid behind denials and intermediaries and the smokescreen of deceit – as Russia does now. But now we don’t; now we claim our assassinations, we love them, we celebrate them, and woe to those who raise their voices against them. Aren’t they, like Susan Sontag acknowledging the courage of the 9/11 hijackers shortly after the event, collaborators with or agents of our enemies? Is it any longer possible, as a patriotic American, which I take myself to be, to object, vociferously, to this sort of thing?

There’s another point worth emphasizing. It’s that these moral offences of our representatives, in this case our presidents, overcome and unite our political divisions. We’re joined, as Americans, Democrat and Republican, Trump-haters and Trump-lovers, in imperial depravities that we are by now sufficiently corrupt as to be blind to. American Exceptionalism, the doctrine that permits us violently corrupt actions upon the world stage that we use force to deny to others, is unquestioned orthodoxy for Democrats and Republicans both, and the few voices raised against it (Tulsi Gabbard’s is one, and it’s partly because she speaks as she does about US foreign policy that she has no chance of being the Democratic nominee in 2020) are marginal and classified as such by the commentariat from every side of the political spectrum.


I write as a patriotic American, one who, against his better judgment and even to the point of shame, is moved to tears, sometimes, by the thought of what America is and might be, and by its gorgeous physical reality. I was naturalized in 1994 at the age of thirty-eight, and have lived in the US since 1980, when I was twenty-four. This country has showered me with blessings, made me into a person I could never have been had I stayed in the country of my birth, and given me a professional career that would have been impossible for me there. My first emotion when I think of America is gratitude, and my second is delight. All the more, then, my shame and grief when my adopted and beloved country does, and celebrates, things such as these assassinations.

I hold no brief for bin Laden or al-Baghdadi. Much of what they planned, advocated, and did, was horribly violent, and some of it was aimed at the US. I have, of course, no view about whether they were bad people, or even what it would mean to call them that. What I know of the writings, speeches, careers, and actions of each suggests to me that each of them was both ideologue and idealist, possessed by a vision of the political good of humanity that in most respects I don’t share, and happy, even eager, to kill those who stood in the way of realizing that vision. None of that, however, differentiates them from the elected representatives of this, my beloved country, at every period in our history. The US is founded on genocide and fattened on slavery, as well as on an inspiring vision of the common good – the political good ­– for human creatures. In that combination, we Americans aren’t different from those who aspire to found a caliphate, and it’s a confusion to think otherwise. We’ve killed more civilians by violence since 2001 than al-Quaeda and ISIS combined, and we should not forget it. The fact is a salutary reminder of the sense in which we are like them and they like us: we and they are both steeped in the blood of non-combatants.

Our presidents from Bush to Trump, two Republicans and two Democrats, could have done things differently, and better. They could have acknowledged that individual sovereign states aren’t the appropriate agents for rectifying injustices and violence of the kind committed on 9/11; they could have recognized the importance of international agencies such as the United Nations and the International Criminal Court for dealing with actions such as that; and, if they still felt moved to undertake military operations against bin Laden, could have extracted him with the publicly-avowed goal of handing him over for trial. That course of action would have been in accord with our professed respect and support for international law, and for the institutions that make and administer it, and it would have differentiated us exactly from our opponents in showing such respect. As it is, we’ve become players in a revenge tragedy, a vendetta that won’t soon end. The case of al-Baghdadi is more complex, because ISIS’s central goal, the establishment of a caliphate, has nothing directly to do with the US. We are, so far as I can tell, on even weaker ground in our attempted assassination of him than in that of bin Laden. What our actions communicate in that case is that we are prepared to assassinate individuals who advocate and try to realize a political vision at odds with our own. No matter how unjust we take that political vision to be, that is not the response to it most in accord with our ideals.

Transnational institutions for dealing with matters like these are weak and getting weaker, in part because of the distance we Americans now keep from them. The thought that we Americans might hand over our revenge-passions to them is therefore utopian. That thought needs defenders nevertheless, not least because the alternatives are worse.


I am a Catholic Christian as well as an American, and as such I have resources for responding to actions like these extraterritorial assassinations that aren’t available to all Americans.

First, there’s lament. A significant part of what’s wrong with what Obama and Trump did is that there was no lament in their announcement of it. They did it because they could, because they judged that it would play well (they were right), and because they thought bin Laden and al-Baghdadi deserved assassination, as enemies of the state. Even if you concur with them in all this, you should, if you’re a Christian, begin and end your response to what we have done with lament for the murderous violence our presidents have planned and authorized in the doing of it. The men they assassinated were men – that’s why I dignified them with their full names at the beginning of this piece; their death is lamentable; our part, as citizens, in it is lamentable too. I hope to hear, in my parish, prayers of lament for al-Baghdadi and for the blood on American hands, but I am almost sure that I’ll be disappointed. In this, as in most things, loyalty to sovereign states tends to overcome and marginalize Christian sentiments.

Second, there’s remembrance that our citizenship in this sovereign state is preliminary and secondary, framed and transcended by our trans-national loyalty to the city that is the Church, and to the heavenly city of which the Church is a visible sign. One way of recalling that state of affairs is to acknowledge with sadness, that such things as state-sponsored extraterritorial assassination aren’t surprising. We Christians have known, at least since Augustine’s City of God, that it’s in the nature of sovereign states to exhibit depravities of this kind, and in the nature of their citizens, too, over time, to grow used to them and to learn to celebrate them. Such celebrations, whether they’re over Roman crucifixions of political enemies or American extraterritorial assassinations of them, are among the clear marks of the human city, which has, always, affirmed and practised the use of violence in defense of its boundaries and perceived geopolitical needs as fundamental and non-negotiable. American Christians have a strong tendency to forget all this, and to take our American citizenship as fundamental to our identity as political agents. I feel this tendency in myself, in part because of the excessive love I have for the US. But it needs to be checked, and remembrance of where we belong, first and last, of what our baptisms have done to and for us, is an essential device for doing that.

Combining lament and remembrance can help American Christians to see the assassinations of bin Laden and al-Baghdadi more clearly. That clarity of vision can be communicated to other Americans by recommending that we should all imagine what the world would be like if what we routinely do extraterritorially were done to us. Assassinating political agents whose works and words we abominate is a double-edged sword; and revenge tragedies have a higher body-count than any other kind.

Paul J. Griffiths was the Warren Professor of Catholic Thought at Duke University. He is now retired from academic life and lives in the mountains of Western North Carolina, where he reads, writes, and hikes, in approximately equal proportions. He is a contributing editor for The Marginalia Review.