Much intelligent discussion of the current security crisis that the United States, and not just the United States, faces has centered on to what extent we and other civilized countries now find ourselves at war -- and if indeed we are at war what constraints precepts of natural justice and sound international jurisprudence impose on the retributive military actions that our government, perhaps aided by its allies, is currently contemplating.

This much seems clear and uncontroversial: our immediate enemy (I prescind here from considering those states who, directly or indirectly, sponsor terrorism) is not a sovereign political state, existing within defined territorial boundaries and composed of combatants and non-combatants. It is an international terrorist network, a private army, that has already declared war on the United States, and not merely the United States -- and that has already, by all the evidence, demonstrated its determination to wage war, not merely on the US political regime, but on American citizens and civil servants, at home and abroad. Any lingering doubt, especially in the Islamic world, that the Al Qaeda network and its acknowledged leader, Osama bin Laden, was directly responsible for the atrocities of Sept. 11 should have been removed by now with the concurrence of the government of Pakistan in this judgment.

Al Qaeda is not a political state, but it is certainly a band of pathological outlaws; and, it must be noted, Al Qaeda is not strictly speaking waging war: for its direct, deliberate, and intentional taking of the lives of non-combatants, it is engaging rather in a systematic campaign of wanton homicide against, at least, anyone who happens to hold an American passport. The US government therefore, as any legitimate political regime in similar circumstances, has the grave duty of protecting her citizens at home and abroad. Justice must be done and this raises the question of what the nature of the American government's response should be if justice is to be served.

It has long been held that the primary purpose of state administered punishment, either of criminals or of aggressors of a collective sort (e.g. such as another nation state), is with restoring the order of justice. In restoring the order of justice via state-sponsored retributive action the punishment should fit the crime. And, it has long been considered the right of the state, in the case of particularly serious crimes against her and her citizens, directly and intentionally to take the take the lives of those determined responsible for the crime or crimes in question -- to do this, for instance, by administering capital punishment to the aggressors once they have been captured.

Assuming then that Osama bin Laden and his collaborators in the atrocities already committed can be brought to justice alive shall they then be executed?

In recent times Pope John Paul II has spoken not merely for the world's Catholics but for all those who believe in an order of universal justice, an order of natural right and wrong antecedent to human deliberations and compacts and agreements and by which each of these are bound, when he stated that in the countries of the developed world with their secure penal systems it is more or less inconceivable that the administering of the death penalty to criminals can be morally justified. Instead, and in keeping with our evolved sense of the dignity of each person, even those who go seriously astray, the political regime's grave duty to protect its citizens can and should be satisfied bloodlessly -- by, for instance, the incarceration of the convicted criminals for life in a maximum security prison.

But for those of us who accept this view, that our government has the right and duty to defend us by disabling our aggressors and taking their lives only if this is in the process of disabling them unavoidable, we our faced with another consideration. That terrorists, particularly terrorist leaders, in prison represent a continuing threat to our society which ordinary criminals, even heads of organized crime families, do not. It is easy for us to imagine the kind of atrocities, now in the name of extorting our government to release bin Laden or others, that members of Al Qaeda still at large might engage in to free him. Therefore, it seems there is a powerful argument, even for those of us who think the state justified in administering capital