Why the U.S. had a right to kill Osama bin Laden

May 2, 2011

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.

 

25 comments

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‘But President Obama can be forgiven for knowing that his reelection odds just skyrocketed.’

For this week, sure, but the elections aren’t for another eighteen months. Voters will have forgotten this whole weirdbeard business by then, especially if the economy still chews and unemployment remains at 8% or more.

That said, it’s nice to see that America can still do it right, when it’s needed. Congratulations – and sincerest thanks – to everyone involved in dropping the old murderer.

Posted by Elektrobahn | Report as abusive

“Islamabad seems like a ship of fools”

Wake up. This is how the US has been looking all these years. Ask anyone in India or even Pakistan

Posted by Stockport | Report as abusive

Bin Laden should have been put on trial.

This worked after WWII and provided closure. It should have been done in 2011.

Posted by upstater | Report as abusive

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@ Elektrobahn,

The voters will not forget it at all. The Obama campaign will continually remind them even if they do. Killing Osama isn’t like the end of the first Gulf War. It is killing the person many hold to be primarily responsible for a shocking attack on American soil that resulted in thousands of deaths and two wars. Even if the economy still sucks, it is at least gradually improving. And anyone can see that Obama’s campaign will trumpet this accomplishment since Clinton and Bush failed to get him. Obama did and we won’t be allowed to forget it especially in 18 months. Gadaffi will be dead or out of Libya by that time too (they are trying to drop a bomb on him), so add another point to Obama’s scorecard. If he gets re-elected, the economy will be fully recovered by the end of his second term the latest as long as the feared double-dip does not happen. @upstater Hitler didn’t live to see trial, his men did. That is a precedent for not trying, but killing the leader.

Posted by Collect | Report as abusive

He proudly admitted to his heinous crime. Civilities aside, the American tax payer should not have to fund the obvious conclusion to his trial.

Posted by KingCunCun | Report as abusive

Killing him was the most logical thing. Cost, irritation, and free publicity were not worth it. Plus it sent a message, no matter how long it takes, we will kill you if you get ridiculous and start offing a bunch of Americans.

And it reminds the Pakistanis that if they want play all sides, eventually someone is going to quit playing. They will be lucky if when we pull of out Kabul if they aren’t swallowed by the aftermath.

Posted by dzoo35 | Report as abusive

upstater: The problem with putting boastful thugs like OBL on trial is that you must be prepared for the possibility of acquittal. If the guilty verdict is already set, on the other hand, then this becomes little more than a show trial, reminiscent of the old Soviet Union in the late ’30s. Does America really want that?

Churchill had it right; He advocated shooting Nazi war criminals on sight, rather than trying them, which he felt would undermine Western justice. OBL got what he had been asking for, and we’ve been spared a pointless trial. Sounds like a good deal to me.

Posted by Elektrobahn | Report as abusive

a trial would have put many more people at risk. Think of the pressure and interest placed on wherever they decided to hold him.

It was a moment of class and smarts in the statement regarding the disposal of the body, even if he didn’t deserve it.

Posted by domt | Report as abusive

The US has the right to do anything, WSJ, according to unprincipled people like you. No crying when the US gets bombed again as they did on 9/11. Obama’s the man! not.. Plus, bin Laden has been dead for years…..they may have found his skeleton but that’s it. If not, let’s see a picture that we can identify as undoubtedly him. No forgeries or photoshop enhancements…. Really difficult to tell what’s real today. It’s a liar’s world…

Posted by lezah2 | Report as abusive

sorry….wrong rag, Reuters’ Easterbrook is the one…

Posted by lezah2 | Report as abusive

It is silly to view the war between the US elites and bin Laden in terms of “right” and “wrong”. Neither side thinks in those terms. They are used solely for propaganda, not analysis.

It is all about raw power. Might makes right.

Posted by txgadfly | Report as abusive

According to the Genevan convention, hunting down and assassinating a named individual is a war crime. What you sow, thereof shall you reap . And “burying” his body at sea is not going too help much, but I guess when you murder someone, his body is your property and you can do what you want with it.

So Obama thinks that the world “will be a better place without Osama bin Laden”. I hope that I am not on Obama’s “the world will be a better place without” list of names. Also there are many people in this world who hold the same opinion about Obama (I happen to be one of them, but I’m not in favor of murdering anyone).

I’ve read tons of information about 9/11, but I’ve never heard a word about why they did it–what was their motivation? My fellow Americans and I have no real idea of what’s going on.

Sure, too many innocent Americans were killed in 9/11, but many innocent Afghan and Pakistan woman, children, and babies have been killed by US guided drone bombardment. I remember that a bridal group of about 50 woman were going down the road when the group was hit by a drone that killed over 30 (including the bride); but the bombings continued and who cares about the consequences, right? The numbers are suppressed, but I’ve never heard the phrase “collateral damaged” used in a 9/11 context. I think that the number of innocent killed in Pakistan and Afghanistan far exceeds that 0f 9/11, but that’s just my opinion–I really don’t know.

Posted by gAnton | Report as abusive

According to the Genevan convention, hunting down and assassinating a named individual is a war crime. What you sow, thereof shall you reap . And “burying” his body at sea is not going too help much, but I guess when you murder someone, his body is your property and you can do what you want with it.

So Obama thinks that the world “will be a better place without Osama bin Laden”. I hope that I am not on Obama’s “the world will be a better place without” list of names. Also there are many people in this world who hold the same opinion about Obama (I happen to be one of them, but I’m not in favor of murdering anyone).

I’ve read tons of information about 9/11, but I’ve never heard a word about why they did it–what was their motivation? My fellow Americans and I have no real idea of what’s going on.

Sure, too many innocent Americans were killed in 9/11, but many innocent Afghan and Pakistan woman, children, and babies have been killed by US guided drone bombardment. I remember that a bridal group of about 50 woman were going down the road when the group was hit by a drone that killed over 30 (including the bride); but the bombings continued and who cares about the consequences, right? The numbers are suppressed, but I’ve never heard the phrase “collateral damaged” used in a 9/11 context. I think that the number of innocent killed in Pakistan and Afghanistan far exceeds that 0f 9/11, but that’s just my opinion–I really don’t know.

Posted by gAnton | Report as abusive

Osama did not sign/accept the Geneva Conventions. He was not covered by the Geneva Conventions.

The U.S. is covered and must abide if the opposing party accepts and applies the provisions of the conventions.
By attacking civilian targets Osama was not “abiding” by the provisions and he and his organization are not protected by the Conventions.

See the wiki article on Geneva Conventions.

Posted by bkw | Report as abusive

Osama was probably teaching a class at the Academy.

Posted by kc10man | Report as abusive

No one has the right to kill another human being. And for a country that claims to be a Christian country, US is a galaxy away from living the Christian life. US kills at home and abroad. US is the epitome of revenge. We imprison more than 50% of the world prisoners.

With all the wars, both covert and declared, US is the top killing machine on earth. And when you count the weapons made and sold by USA, no nation comes close to beating US as the death manufacturer. SO YES, “AMERICAN CAN REALLY DO SOMETHING PROPERLY”. We can kill!

I hope you are very proud of your country, Mr Easterbrook! Osama bin Laden may have planned the 9/11 attacks, but most of the world know that Osama bin Laden and the Al Qaeda did not carry it out.

Posted by OCTheo | Report as abusive

While I agree that a quick clean kill in a case such as this (where guilt really is established beyond any shred of sane doubt), and anything ANYTHING beats the Soviet style show trial put on for Saddam, you need to think carefully before you speak.

So, when someone goes around killing innocent civilians, it is fone to kill them?

To what extent does that make George W Bush a legitimate target? Or any US general from the last ten years?

See the problem? Obama got the tone just about perfect. If only he really would close Guantanamo, the US would have half a chance on getting to grips with the real (economic) threats it faces.

Posted by Dafydd | Report as abusive

“The raid was honorable”

-I dont agree, as it was another dirty chapter in a dirty war.

Posted by Alexi222 | Report as abusive

to be honest I am curious what Osama would tell the judge? did anyone want him to speak?

Posted by wladi | Report as abusive

I suppose a war on Iran would be very expensive.

Now that the boogyman has gone a quick whitewash in Afghanistan -maybe some schools, a friendly puppet military or police force controlled government, oil pipeline secured and the US can pull out before the next election. Looks great to the unlearned herd voters.

Just after the election holiday the same and forces can then be re-committed using a Libyan, Israel or Iraq base and whammo go into Iran – all cost effective-like Obama likes.

Posted by Pounder | Report as abusive

US can kill as many people as they wish with impunity. They prove it in the past and they will in the future. Why? They are the most powerful country in the world and will do whatever it takes to keep it this way. They did not joint International Criminal Court for this very purpose.
Morality does not exist in this country. Make no mistake; I am not talking about normal individuals here, but the 1% of greedy American individuals and corporations who control the geopolitical agenda of this powerful country. If we make exception of few liberal minds, that make quite a number who are being brain wash with key buzz words such as on the very purpose to keep the herd of sheep in line behind the leaders.
US do not need enemies. US can create and train their own. To help rugg regime like Saddam to fight Iran, then to train OBL and his followers to fight the Russian in Afghanistan, then the rebels in Misrata to fight the bad guy in Tripoli and there it goes, terrorism in the making.
In my view there are three kinds of terrorism. US should say mea culpa at least on two counts.
1. Plain terrorism: One individual who choose to blown himself up and kill indiscriminately as many people as possible.
2. State terrorism: Sovereign country killing indiscriminately civilians to get their high value target and calling the lost . Ex: drome attack in Afghanistan or Pakistan;
3. Economic terrorism: Sovereign country starving civilians of another sovereign country to achieve their geopolitics’ goals. Ex: regime change in Iran and North Korean or collective punishment of Palestine.
The real enemies of American people are their ignorance of their leaders who fabricate their own source of terrors to legitimate their crime against humanity and consequently assure they will stay in the driver seat for their selfish wealth!

Posted by armonid | Report as abusive

[...] bin Laden can be called “justice.” The BBC podcast is here. My Reuters column on the subject is here. « Previous [...]

So why wasn’t John Demjanjuk ‘executed’ in the same way? He was complicit in the murder of 27,000 people!
http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-europe-1 3369035

Posted by CuriousCat | Report as abusive

The opinions in this piece assume a great many things.

First, it assumes Al Queda is not only a functional terrorist organization, but that they are a large and highly stuctured, sophisticated, multinational organization capable of orchestrating global jihad against the west. Despite there being little to no evidence of any actual membership or real links to any other islamic militants anywhere.

It assumes that a single piece of ‘evidence’, widely criticised as fraudulent (the Osama videotape admission), and released without confirmation from Al Queda many years after 9/11, is an indictment of Bin Laden in what has otherwise been consistantly denied from the beginning.

From this point of assumption the rest of the opinions are forged, though even had these opinions been fact there is still a strong case for moral bankruptcy and anti-democratic logic in your argument.

Assuming Bin Laden was all you say he was and the same was true of Al Queda, and the US is all it says it is and the same of their military… it is not acceptable that this advanced military monstrosity led by the self proclaimed moral compass of the free world compromise in the final hour of their greatest moral victory!

How dare you, as a writer with responsibilities, even suggest to me that after 10 years of the world hearing nothing but how moral, just and free we are in the west compared to our enemies, we are now supposed to believe that at the 11th hour when we had that one chance to prove our moral superiority once and for all, we instead chose to execute a group of unarmed men… and that is ok because revealing the truth about them in a trial would provoke anger???

This is absolutely ridiculous and insulting.

Your suggestion that money should play any part in the matter is idiotic, whats millions of dollars to a country who offered a $40 million dollar reward for his capture in the first place? And we know exactly where he would go – guantanamo bay…

He was killed because he was not who we think he was, and because his prosecution would have been extremely embarrassing due to legalities and lack of evidence.

For a country who basically invented the present idea of Bin Laden and Al Queda, started wars and killed countless thousands using them as justification, it would be integrity suicide to show the world anything else.

You show me a single piece of information, that doesn’t come directly from the mouth of Bin Laden’s enemies, that even suggests he HAD a network of followers let alone made them swear an oath to him personally.

Whether US law forbids the targeted assasination of heads of state or not, the CIA has a long and documented track record of assasination and support for terrorism throughout the world so it’s irrelevant.
What matters more is why?

This is what we DO know.

* The US trained, armed and funded islamic militants in Afghanistan in the 80′s to draw them into a proxy war with the USSR. Osama Bin Laden was among those militants.

* Osama was also trained in the US.

* Many US officials in high places have close personal and business relationships with the Bin Laden family, and have had for decades.

* The US has an extremely appeasing, strategically imperative and profitable relationship with the Islamic dictatorship of Saudi Arabia.

* The CIA and ISI shared an extremely close relationship in the creation of the Afghan Mujaheddin, and the handling of their asset Bin Laden.

* The ONLY publicly known account of Al Queda as a functioning organization, it’s structure and even it’s name before 9/11 is the testimony of a so called Al Queda operative who turned himself in after the Kenya US embassy bombings and who is widely regarded as having given false information to help clasify Al Queda as an organization to fit with current RICO laws for prosecuting international criminal syndicates. He is also known to have recieved a lot of money for his testimony.

* The only evidence actually linking Bin Laden to 9/11 in any way is a video confession which surfaced many years after 2001, was not confirmed by ‘Al Queda’ and is widely suspected of being a fraud. And the testimony of a guantanamo bay inmate tortured for years and thus completely unreliable.

* The US has used ‘Terrorism’ as a trigger for war and expansion into the middle east and central asia.
An area Obama’s top advisor Brezinski writes in his book as being of pivotal importance to the continuity of US power. A man you can find on film rallying jihadists to power in Afghanistan with cries of “god is on your side!”.

* The US has used ‘Terrorism’ as a trigger for the privitization of defense infrastructure at home and abroad.

* The US has used ‘Terrorism’ as an excuse to strangle civil liberties and democratic freedoms.

* The US installed the Karzai ‘government’ at a time of it’s choosing.

* Under US occupation Afghanistan now supplies over 90% of the world’s herion. The world’s most dangerous and addictive narcotic. The Taliban outlawed and eradicated production.

* The US is now known to have manipulated evidence and the public on a grand scale as a pretext to invade a country for strategic purposes, causing civil war and immense casualties.

* The US economy is in VERY bad shape right now.

* The Obama administration retreated back step by step with their official story of what happened in the Osama raid.

First they said there was an intense gun battle and now we know the enemies didn’t fire a single shot.

Osama used his wife as a human shield and fired on his attackers, now she tried to protect him and he was executed unarmed.

And you expect people to listen to you guys anymore??

Sadly, western media and government sources have become so colossally discredited in the last few decades, in particular the last 10 years, that now people are just too exhausted or embarrassed to really challenge anything…

Because the only power we have to do so is in the pathetic, though free, theatre of internet blogs.. apparently now also discredited.

Posted by brian-decree | Report as abusive

Whether we like it or not, we still have laws in this country, and nobody is above them, not even our citizen president. He can’t give himself the power to murder,or order someones murder. Laws in this country apply to all equally, no single person can have laws that apply just to them, that’s ludicrous. Obama needs to be tried in an international court for murder. If Al-Qaeda flew into Texas and killed bush and dumped the body at sea, how legal is that? We would have to accept it, as Pakistan did.
Nobody is to be deprived of life without due process. PERIOD. Not only did Obama violate the right to life, he violated the constitution he swore to uphold.
So, guess who the world’s number one terrorist is now?

Posted by joebanana | Report as abusive

nobody has the right to kill noone, but the US doesnt care, the political interests, the central banks, the investors, dont care. the US is an organization that has attacked civilians in other nations. for years, innocent people.

i believe only cuba and iran are the only 2 countries left without a central bank, research… the assassinations will keep coming.

Posted by Bobseager | Report as abusive

[...] video is pretty convincing, but so is this. Why the U.S. had a right to kill Osama bin Laden | Gregg Easterbrook That's why we elect national and military leaders to make decisions such as to kill or not kill [...]