My oldest children, overhearing a conversation between my husband and me, asked about the US operation that resulted in the death of Islamic State leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. After I explained what happened, my third-grader smiled then frowned. “I’m glad we got him, but it still doesn’t feel happy.” Isn’t that right, Christian?
Andrew Walker wrote a wonderful piece fleshing out the matter to inform a proper Christian response to the death of a man like Baghdadi. I commend it.
There are two points about the issue, including in the way President Donald Trump announced his death, that days later I’ve continued to turn over and over in my mind.
The first is on the president’s rhetoric. He called Islamist militants “savage monsters” and called Baghdadi a “coward” who “died like a dog.” Some have condemned the language, calling it “dehumanizing,” while others expressed discomfort. I have no problem with it. On the contrary, I think the president’s prepared remarks and most of the question and answer portion were Trump at his best.
True, the language was jarring, as Trump’s rhetoric sometimes is—even at painfully inappropriate times, such as when he uses hyperbolic “enemy of the people” language against a critical and frequently unfair but American free press, or when he employs effusive flattery with brutal dictators. But this time, in this context, the descriptions were perfectly appropriate and instructive.
We know the crimes of ISIS, which are the result of worshiping a false and cruel god that demands forced conversions at the tip of a sword. Though an image bearer himself, Baghdadi hated what the one true God loves and loved what God hates. The president’s ability and willingness to clearly articulate Baghdadi’s depravity contributes toward successfully fulfilling government’s ultimate purpose. “Be subject for the Lord’s sake to every human institution, whether it be to the emperor as supreme, or to governors as sent by him to punish those who do evil and to praise those who do good” (1 Peter 2:13–14).
The president not only painted Baghdadi and his mission as evil, but he also contrasted him with his victims, who represent the good that the United States seeks to defend.
He said, “Their murder of innocent Americans James Foley, Steven Sotloff, Peter Kassig, and Kayla Mueller were especially heinous. The shocking publicized murder of a Jordanian pilot—a wonderful young man, spoke to the king of Jordan, they all knew him, they all loved him—who was burned alive in a cage for all to see. And the execution of Christians in Libya and Egypt, as well as the genocidal mass murder of Yazidis, rank ISIS among the most depraved organizations in the history of our world.”
We need moral clarity here while pursuing strategies to defeat Islamist militants. Not only does such proper understanding calibrate the campaign’s urgency and purpose, but it also removes some of the perceived glory that followers or would-be recruits might perceive in a leader like Baghdadi. He wasn’t brave; he was a coward. “Allah” wasn’t going to indefinitely permit him to elude the “evil” American superpower. He didn’t display classic manly virtues, but only despicable, cowardly behavior. He should not be esteemed, let alone emulated, lest one lives a life of disgrace until a certain and ignominious death.
Trump’s language serves a political purpose that is rooted in moral principle, so the president is on rock-solid ground.
The second point is on why the event wasn’t “happier,” even as many Americans are grateful this evil has been restrained. If the president’s words were correct, and they were, and the government’s “sword” was wielded justly, and it was, why does the Christian’s soul not feel a greater sense of satisfaction? I think there are two reasons.
First, the Christian knows that, but for the grace of God, do any of us think, love, hate, or go. So while we are thankful for God’s perfect justice, humility demands we rejoice in its holy and eternal application against fellow sinners with trepidation.
Second, we still rely on faith when we acknowledge God is perfectly executing justice against Baghdadi for his crimes against his victims—children, Christians, and others—eternally. Until faith becomes sight, holy satisfaction caused by the alignment of our will and God’s perfect will only flutters through our restless souls.
Baghdadi’s earthly death simply doesn’t feel sufficient, not for what he did to so many. He lived his last minutes afraid and desperate, terrifying innocents to his last breath—those babies he dragged with him when the Americans tried so hard to redeem them. He used his life to cause great human suffering, and then in a minute his own life was over. Earthly justice, even as close to perfect as this instance is for us mortals, is still imperfect. Because of this imperfect application, some Christians conclude his death is not worth celebrating, and pacifists say he was not worth executing at all. If justice can never be perfect or feel wholly satisfying, perhaps war and the death penalty should be banned altogether, the thinking goes.
As Mark Tooley highlighted, the operation was appreciated by at least some family members of ISIS’ victims. “I just want to say how grateful we are to this administration, to the military, and to the special forces that went in,” Marsha Mueller, mother of the slain humanitarian Christian, Kayla, for whom the US mission was named, told CNN. “My hope is that this will help us get answers to what really happened to Kayla and get her home.”
It is for her, for the thousands who endured suffering, for the families of those tortured and killed, and for the thousands saved because of the US campaign to defeat ISIS—that we can thank God for the mission and the president’s direction, and pray for continued success as the anti-terrorist campaigns continue.