License to Kill

The recently released tape of Osama Bin Laden played on the Arab Al-Jezeera network has been identified by the U.S. government as authentic. It has also been branded inauthentic by some Swiss tape experts and by some Islamic scholars who say the citations are wrong for bin Laden’s orthodox style. People suspicious of U.S. government manipulation think the tape appeared when it did to prod passage of the Homeland Security Act.

I’d like to consider it as authentic for purposes of moral analysis. It is consistent with earlier statements by bin Laden and voices his same religious justifications.

What is said? Osama bin Laden, or the person pretending to be him, speaks as ‘the slave of God’ to the peoples allied with the unjust government of the United States. He argues that Arab peoples have been brutalized and mistreated by the Americans, who deserve to die for this cruelty. The speaker prays piously to his god to support and defend him and all good Muslims in their war against the infidels. The Islamic society will, he says, with God’s help, “fight you with its children, who have promised God to continue to fight hard to reach justice and stop injustice as long as they live.” This war, he says, is spreading and increasingly successful. The attacks on New York and Washington have been followed by attacks in Tunis, Karachi, Yemen, Failaka, Bali and Moscow by the sons of Islam who are fulfilling the orders of their god and their prophet.

This is the same logic and rhetoric of the Crusades. There God protected his Christian people as they sought to wrest the holy lands from the perfidious hands of the Muslim infidel.

The problem with a religious license to kill is that it’s unarguable. If people are inspired and believe their cause righteous they will be martyrs among the believers, even if branded fanatics or malefactors by the enemy. Bin Laden’s religious appeal is as real as Joan of Arc’s.

And bin Laden’s second appeal is also familiar–his people have suffered. Leaders of many stripes appeal to national humiliation, persecution or disgrace as justification for acts of revenge or reprisal. Hitler constantly intoned Germany’s humiliation in World War I. Milosevic spoke of Serbian defeats centuries past as rationale for Serbian retaliation. The Israeli cry of ‘never again’ summons the Holocaust as justification of self-defense warfare and aggression.

Those who believe themselves embattled, aggrieved or entitled to conquer error, easily assume the mantle of just war. Bin Laden calls Bush the pharaoh of today (some experts say he would never mix religious metaphor In this way) and says Bush and Israel, the ally of America, kill children and the elderly and destroy houses. He warns other nations to avoid this criminal gang. But mostly he says that they and those who aid them shall be righteously killed in retribution for the killing they have done. “As you kill, you will be killed. As you bomb you will be bombed and wait for the bad.” He presents himself not as a terrorist but as a righteous avenger following god’s will.

We citizens of the United States embrace tolerance as a national value and separate church and state; we constitutionally refuse to establish religion. But many American Christian leaders preach openly against Muslims, and many Christian leaders who preach for strong military support of Israel do so in anticipation of a time when Israel is destroyed or converted and the Christian Messiah comes to Jerusalem in glory. If bin Laden says we are decadent and corrupt and should be destroyed, and we say he is evil and fanatical and should be destroyed, what do the utterances mean except that we’re justified in killing each other? For us, our gods become the ratifiers of our goodness; for our opponents, they are the rationalization of our evil.

The version of Christianity that I like refuses violence. I’m for the Christ who won’t smite his oppressors, who says if someone strikes you turn the other cheek, who says to love your enemy and do good to them that hate you. Some might quarrel that the same Christ comes finally in Christian judgment to separate the good and the evil–inviting the former to eternal glory and banishing the latter to eternal perdition. Eternal violence, some might say, makes up for temporal pacifism.

Maybe so, but we should note that we’re in time and we’re not god. The principle of being good or bad for the Christ I like is doing good to your fellow human being-feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, sheltering the homeless, visiting the imprisoned. To do this to the least is to do it to God says Christ.

But can I impose this belief on you, can I kill you if you don’t accept it or convert? Christianity sometimes did. It also murdered in revenge. The root of Christian anti-Semitism and persecution is blaming the Jews for killing Christ–a position officially disowned only recently.

I think the only acceptable moral position is to give everybody the liberty to choose their god and good, or their non-god good and insist that all be allowed and none licensed.

Most Americans feel comfortably superior to nations which issue death sentences for blasphemy and stone adulterous women. As the world becomes smaller, we need to think about values we can honestly stand for and support. The value of human life is primary and supercedes all others. We should act for that good and not imitate the evil we seek to abolish.

The real religious truth is that we are the evil we hate if we mirror it. There is a difference between good and evil, between life and death, between killing or not. Those who murdered and fomented murder on September 11, 2001 are murderers, as are those who murder in revenge.

To piously proclaim worship and submission to god’s will does not make anyone god or his prophet. There are no legitimate religious licenses to kill.

DIANE CHRISTIAN is SUNY Distinguished Teaching Professor at University at Buffalo. She can be reached at:


DIANE CHRISTIAN is SUNY Distinguished Teaching Professor at University at Buffalo and author of the new book Blood Sacrifice. She can be reached at: