Political Promise

Why didn’t we trial bin Laden before we killed him?

In Jamie Walden on June 15, 2011 at 8:44 pm

Did you celebrate on the streets? Did you think America’s treatment of bin Laden was fair justice? Do you feel any safer from the threat of terrorism now he is dead? Jamie Walden looks into these questions and more, asking firstly: where was Osama bin Laden’s trial?

The day Winston Churchill stopped attending the Potsdam conferences in the summer of 1945 must have baffled an anti-democrat like Joseph Stalin.  Those discussions held between the Soviet Union, United Kingdom and United States, designed to establish post-war order, coincided with the British general election which oversaw the transition from Churchill to Clement Atlee.  Michael Walzer notes in Just and Unjust Wars that this was an admirable example of everything we had been defending: a powerful wartime leader replaced by the electorate, because those are the rules without which we would be distinctly impoverished. 

Osama bin Laden being put on trial may well have the elicited a similar resonance of moral superiority. 

I must qualify that statement by making some points clear. 

i) The brave and unknown forces who extinguished this grubby little symbol of jihad did a better days work than I shall ever do. 

They have been subjected to a variety of sneers.  Ranging from quibbles about whether or not the body was disposed with in such a manner bin Laden’s superstitions would have approved of.  By the way, has anyone noticed that those who wished him a proper Muslim burial implicitly make the concession that he can be considered a proper Muslim after all?  To the insistence that the breach of Pakistan’s sovereignty in not giving advanced warning of the mission (or not seeking advanced permission) had been unjustified.  I do not wish to partake in the desperate attempts of many to prove Western forces as the equivalent of bin Ladenists, so they can retain their “we are the bad guys” stance. 

ii) The extra-judicial killing of bin Laden was not illegitimate. 

In 1996 Al Qaeda with bin Laden at its helm declared war against the United States.  On numerous occasions this assertion has been backed up by acts of warfare, resulting in quite a significant international death toll I need not elaborate on (although bizarrely there are still those who claim the threat is imagined or exaggerated- it seems attention must not have been paid).  The assassination of the leaders of the opposition during a state of war in which you are justified in defending yourself, which you did not start and did not want, seems to me to be quite legitimate.  Would Yasmin Alibhai-Brown and those who draw moral equivalence between bin Laden and those who killed him have squealed in Hitler’s defence had there been a successful assassination attempt on that particular vessel of self-generating evil?  Would we have heard whines about good old Adolf not receiving a proper Catholic burial? 

iii) Had I been in America when the announcement was made, I would have joined in with the celebrations. 

Those who proselytise against the celebrations in America, with what I sensed was at least a hint of crude xenophobic stereotyping, seem to have imagined something that was not taking place.  The chants were almost exclusively of the “USA, USA…” nature, not “bin Laden’s dead, bin Laden’s dead”.  Perhaps it was a celebration of the free world rather than a dance on the grave of a fellow homo sapien. 

iv) I am not an apologist for bin Laden (see points i, ii and iii) and I am not being soft on bin Ladenism.

There are those who do apologise for bin Ladenism- those who think that the atrocity of September 11th 2001 was a ‘revolt’ against the ‘new world order’ as Oliver Stone referred to it, or those who think that they did it because we asked for it as French philosopher Jean Baudrillard remarked.  There are those who tell children that if only America had not gotten involved in the Middle East the victims would have been spared.  There are those who took the use of innocent people as erasers in rubbing out bits and pieces of the New York skyline to be a sign that we ought to listen sympathetically to the grievances of the perpetrators.  One has to wonder though, to what extent could a Saudi millionaire like bin Laden be representative of oppression?  Maybe we ought to challenge the taboo that renders it impolite to suggest that it is religion and not American hegemony that motivates bin Ladenism.   

Proponent of the American hegemony theory, Noam Chomsky, has even implied that there is about as much reason to believe bin Laden’s claims of responsibility for 9/11 as there would be to believe Chomsky himself had won the Boston Marathon, if he claimed to have done so.  Not quite.  If Chomsky was a serial marathon winner, the only professional athlete to enter the race, had repeatedly announced that he would enter and win the event, was ranked as the world’s number one marathon runner, went on to win countless other marathons, began a school of marathon training and had numerous students go on to win future Boston marathon’s having implemented his training methods, then perhaps we can draw an analogy.  Unlike Chomsky I do not doubt the verdict of a hypothetical trial.  

Yet seeing bin Laden going through trial and conviction, as opposed to hearing of his death on the news, would have undoubtedly displayed the moral superiority of the West- the side some of us believe is not the problem in this clash of civilisations (or clash about civilisation).  The extra effort required, even in these extreme circumstances, to cleave to the principles we consider to be indispensible would have vindicated the defence of those very principles that we have been forced by bin Ladenism to embark upon. 

History will no doubt look back on us as having done humanity a favour.  But had bin Laden faced arrest, trial and conviction, history may have looked back on us with a sense of pride as well.  Perhaps we have missed a small but important opportunity. 

Oh I know I am being silly and sentimental.  I cannot imagine myself being dropped from the air into an enclosed compound following hours of briefing, family back home, nerves jangling, heart pulsating, clutching a firearm in the pitch black Abbottabad night.  I hear bin Laden and his cronies do have a history of violence after all.  A suicide vest beneath garments would have surprised no one (well maybe Chomsky).  The bullets start flying; the targets feel trapped, thus making them very dangerous.  I can hardly expect the handcuffs to come out can I? 

Still.  It would have been nice.

  1. I find it very strange that many US media outlets (including Fox and CNN) seem to have forgotten 1. that they reported on bin Laden’s death and funeral in December 2001, 2. that prior to that date bin Laden consistently denied involvement in 9/11 because it violated his religious beliefs to kill women, children and innocent civilians and 3. that none of the bin Laden tapes released after Dec 2001 have been independently authenticated (and are most likely forgeries). I blog about this at http://stuartbramhall.aegauthorblogs.com/2011/06/01/osama-bin-laden-dead-or-alive/

  2. Essentially, “extinguishing this grubby little symbol of jihad” was the most expedient action that could be taken given the circumstances. Logistically, (as you point out) there are safety issues with arresting said grubby little symbol whilst his being ‘wired’ or not was unclear. Moreover, the prospect of several of his grubby little mates suddenly appearing and expressing their disapproval at the situtation no doubt weighed heavily on the minds of his extinguishers. Furthermore, assuming bin Laden could be taken alive, the timescale necessary for him to be charged; a willing legal representative to be found; bin Laden to refuse to acknowledge the (presumably non-sharia) court’s authority over him; to fire his legal team; prepare his own defence; be sentenced and – yes, probably similarly “extinguished” – would be a) ample for the aforementioned “grubby little mates” to gather themselves and express said disapproval (presumably loudly and explosively at various US-embassy sites worldwide) and b) extremely tedious.

    The “superiority of Western morality” aside, sometimes it’s just easier to shoot the bastards.

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