Why The Death Of bin Laden Stinks
May 5, 2011
by Martin Odoni
So here we are then, ladies and gentlemen, we are living in a post-Osama bin Laden world. I can’t say I’m impressed with how this new world seems so far, but nonetheless, he was shot on May the 2nd 2011, and so of course, the world is put to rights.
Sometimes, just sometimes, assassination can be acceptable. In times of war, it can be justified or at least mitigated in certain conditions. And let it be remembered that bin Laden declared war on the USA in the 1990’s, so his supporters (what few there are) can hardly protest against his death on the basis of it being an act-of-war. (Not that I see much sign of them doing so.) But does that all mean that this particular assassination is acceptable?
When an assassination is attempted, it must, not just can, must, be mitigated by the conditions. And when I say that, I mean it can’t be done simply "because it’s a war". That’s just a sweeping, one-size-fits-all standard of measurement. The exact circumstances it’s done in are all-important, and in the case of bin Laden, I’m sorry but the circumstances just do not cut it.
For one thing, in strategic terms it really wasn’t necessary to kill him. He was just a sick old man, one who had long ceased to be of any practical importance. This is not being said in the hope of winning sympathy for him, but merely to point out what an empty achievement it was on the part of the USA in managing to take him down. Finding him took some doing, especially given the suspicious inactivity of the Pakistani security forces, granted. But once the Americans found him, killing him was no great task, and it will make no positive difference in the war (such as it is).
But another question is the actual morality and intention of the raid in which he died. The official story put forward by the White House surrounding the attack has changed almost beyond recognition in the days since, and the more subsequent corrections that come through, the more suspicious it starts to sound. Yes, ‘fog-of-war’ confusion can lead to many discrepancies, but not some of the ones we are getting here, particularly the glaring variances with what bin Laden’s daughter recalls. These corrections are, in their own right, making the death of bin Laden sound a far less reasonable outcome. In particular, the admission that he was not armed when the Americans cornered him.
The inevitable question this provokes is, “Were they always planning to kill him summarily?” Or to put it another way, was the whole operation meant from the outset to be an assassination? If the Americans did deliberately kill bin Laden without even trying to capture him, it puts the morals of the operation in a far less courageous light than the likes of Barack Obama and David Cameron have so far tried to paint it.
The inconsistencies seem more conscious than ‘fog-of-war’ denials would seem to suggest, especially in light of the attempts made at the outset to justify the outcome. The statements made on Monday went to some lengths to insist that bin Laden "resisted" capture, leading many to assume that he forced the soldiers to gun him down. But it turns out that he wasn’t armed, in which case, what form did this resistance take? (In fact, that’s a question that would have needed a full and definitive answer even if he had been armed.) What exactly was bin Laden doing to resist? Thumbing his nose and sticking his tongue out? Making insulting hip movements in the direction of the soldiers? Turning and running in the other direction? Just shaking his head when he was told to put his hands up? Resisting arrest can mean just about anything upwards of these actions, and they would hardly call for a bullet through the brain-case in response. In spite of all the revisions to their account, this detail still goes unexplained.
Furthermore, if an assassination is truly justified in the minds of the Allies, why have they so far not used the word to describe what happened? Why do they insist on calling it ‘a raid’? Why have they bothered trying to dress up bin Laden’s final moments like those of the proverbial wounded tiger? It looks to me worryingly like Obama knew that what he had ordered was all pretty unnecessary, and it leads to uncomfortable questions; for instance, whether the precise timing of the attack might have been a stunt to get Donald Trump and the Birther movement off his back for a few days. Maybe not, as I don’t suppose it needed bin Laden’s death to achieve that. But it still bears asking.
Whatever the motive, if it was premeditated, the slaying of bin Laden is not vindicated by the circumstances. Assassination can only be defended when the consequences of not doing it are clearly going to be worse than the act itself, and unless the Americans had some solid information about bin Laden being up to something truly horrific (which they would surely have revealed by now with considerable staged indignation if they had), that is simply not the case here. Therefore, the only justification for his death is if it were not the original aim, but he would have taken the lives of the soldiers who had him cornered if they had not killed him. This doesn’t appear to apply either if he wasn’t armed (even allowing for three of his colleagues being armed).
This therefore appears very much like a familiar, ugly story of arbitrary/summary justice, justice of a type the USA has long since become far too comfortable with meting out. It is a nation that behaves in other countries where it has no authority with considerably less respect for the law and due process than it ever would in its own backyard, even though in its own backyard it actually does have authority. The Americans have made clear that they acted without the involvement of the Pakistani security forces. They have understandable reasons for that, but it was still a unilateral action inside someone else’s territory. Summary execution committed inside someone else’s jurisdiction, followed by what appears to be a flimsy attempt to cover up the real background of what happened.
This business, in short, stinks.