Why the US had a right to kill Osama bin Laden


Should the United States have invaded Iraq? Should the United States be bombing Libya? These are troubling questions. But there is no question the United States had a right to kill Osama bin Laden — and no doubt his death is good news, including for the world’s Muslims, most of whom are law-abiding and peace-loving.

Bin Laden led an organization that attacked civilians in the United States and several other nations. Under international law, under all ethical and most religious reasoning, the United States had a clear right of self-defense regarding bin Laden and al Qaeda. Pakistani national sovereignty may have been violated, which is an issue for Washington and Islamabad to work out. But the killing itself was self-defense. No serious person — and no school of thought — should object.

Some time may pass before important details are known. From initial reports, these thoughts come to mind:

The raid was honorable. Bombers could have dropped GPS-guided bombs from 50,000 feet, without any American being in danger. But that might have killed many bystanders, and the world would never have been sure who was under the rubble. By sending commandos in for a face-to-face fight, the United States chose the tactics that would limit Pakistani casualties, and be sure U.S. soldiers were shooting at the right person.

We may never know the identities of the special force members on the raid. They did the honorable thing — risking their own lives to spare bystanders.

Killing, rather than capture, was correct. There existed no doubt about bin Laden’s guilt, since he himself regularly proclaimed it. Killing him — Reuters is reporting the commandos were ordered to kill, not capture — avoided a trial that could have been a terrorism trigger. Plus, huge amounts of money would have been spent guarding a captured bin Laden. Better to spend the money building schools in Afghanistan.

His followers’ personal vow is now broken. One reason Nazi Germany refused to surrender long past the point its position was hopeless was that Wehrmacht members took an oath of allegiance not to German patriotism but to Hitler personally. Until Hitler was dead, many German military personnel felt duty-bound to honor their vows even if that meant following the orders of an obvious madman. As soon as Hitler was gone, the oaths dissolved and German forces surrendered.

Al Qaeda members take oaths not to any nation or any vision, but to bin Laden personally. Now he’s gone. True, some al Qaeda members may vow obedience to some new murderer. But others, released from their oaths, may leave al Qaeda.

Surely the United States did not tell Pakistan this was about to happen. Though bin Laden is hated by many in Pakistan’s government — al Qaeda has killed more Muslims in Pakistan and Afghanistan than Christians and Jews in the United States — there are also fanatics in Pakistani intelligence.

As described by Lawrence Wright in his book The Looming Tower, they warned bin Laden about the 1998 American attempt against him. Likely they would have warned bin Laden again.

Pakistani intelligence officials now look like dolts. Bin Laden was directly under their noses — in a pleasant “hill station” town favored by wealthy Pakistani generals and retired military and “just a few hundred meters from Pakistan’s version of the West Point military academy”. Yet Pakistani intelligence either was too dull-witted to notice, or corrupt and knew and said nothing. Had Pakistan brought bin Laden to justice without the help of the U.S., Islamabad would now seem super-competent, and be winning the world’s praise. Instead, Islamabad seems like a ship of fools.

This killing is irrelevant to the targeted-assassination debate. A few days ago, the United States tried to kill Muammar Gaddafi, using bombs. U.S. law forbids the targeted killing of heads of state, making the U.S. airstrike troubling on many levels: among them that American law makes it legal to kill the innocent when bombs miss, so long as no named individual was targeted. That’s tormented ethics, to put it mildly.

But bin Laden was not a head of state, he was a stateless criminal and an obvious threat to the lives of others. There’s no legal concern here.

Was the raid truly perfect? President Obama’s declaration that U.S. commandos “took care to avoid civilian casualties” could mean many things. The White House should clarify immediately.

The correspondents dinner. Saturday night, Obama was yukking it up at the White House Correspondents Dinner — knowing the raid was about to happen, and the situation for America was about to get either a lot better or a lot worse. The president smiled his way through the dinner (arguably the single most ridiculous aspect of contemporary Washington politics), giving no hint. That’s Academy Award acting.

There were no leaks. Nobody in the White House, the Department of Defense or the intelligence community leaked anything. State Department personnel were evacuated from Peshawar in the hours before the raid, and not one of them texted or tweeted the slightest hint. America really can do something properly!

At this time, no one should think of politics. But President Obama can be forgiven for knowing that his reelection odds just skyrocketed.