Via Halperin, I see Obama gave the politically safe answer.
Of course, if you are manifestly against the death penalty in all cases, like me, then there’s no issue here. Ditto if you both approve of the death penalty and set a relatively low bar for its application.
I want to explore a more nuanced position — I know, politics is allergic to nuance — a little further, however: the Catholic Church’s teaching on the death penalty. It is not, as some assume, a blanket proscription, at least not in theory. Here’s what the Catechism says:
2267 Assuming that the guilty party’s identity and responsibility have been fully determined, the traditional teaching of the Church does not exclude recourse to the death penalty, if this is the only possible way of effectively defending human lives against the unjust aggressor.
If, however, non-lethal means are sufficient to defend and protect people’s safety from the aggressor, authority will limit itself to such means, as these are more in keeping with the concrete conditions of the common good and are more in conformity to the dignity of the human person.
Today, in fact, as a consequence of the possibilities which the state has for effectively preventing crime, by rendering one who has committed an offense incapable of doing harm – without definitely taking away from him the possibility of redeeming himself – the cases in which the execution of the offender is an absolute necessity “are very rare, if not practically non-existent.”
The way I interpret this is that if a person’s continued life harms others, even while he is incarcerated, then the death penalty is justified. So now the question becomes whether Osama Bin Laden could continue to coordinate terrorist attacks from a jail cell and would continue to inspire said acts if kept alive. To the first question, I find it unlikely that we would allow Bin Laden any sort of contact with the outside world, so his tactical influence would be minuscule at best. The second question is trickier. Yes, I’m sure Bin Laden’s stature among Islamic reactionaries wouldn’t suffer if America captured him, but I imagine he would become the stuff of legends in their circles if he died in the custody of the United States. If you think Bin Laden inspires terror now, wait until he’s a martyr.
Nor should this reservation about applying the death penalty to Bin Laden or even martyrdom-bound terrorists in general be restricted to Catholic logic. An otherwise pro-death penalty realist might raise objections on exactly the same grounds: that to make martyrs out of those seeking to be martyrs is neither good strategy nor preventive punishment. Independent my objections to the death penalty, I happen to think broadcasting to the world that terrorists who target the U.S. will be martyrs one way or the other — whether they succeed or fail — is just plain stupid. Why not warn them that if they’re caught, they’ll not only live out their days — every one of their natural days — in an American jail cell very much not dying for God, but when they do die, they’ll be buried in a manner so offensive to Islam they cannot expect to reach paradise.
All probably too much nuance for an American presidential campaign.