The Osama bin Laden exception

Does the terrorist's singular evil mean it doesn't matter what took place?

Topics: Osama Bin Laden,

The Osama bin Laden exceptionFILE - In this Dec. 24, 1998 file photo, Muslim militant and al-Qaida leader Osama Bin Laden speaks to a selected group of reporters in mountains of Helmand province in southern Afghanistan. The Americans who raided bin Laden's lair met far less resistance than the Obama administration described in the aftermath, according to its latest account. The commandos encountered gunshots from only one man, whom they quickly killed, before sweeping the house and shooting others, who were unarmed, a senior defense official said. (AP Photo/Rahimullah Yousafzai, File)(Credit: AP)

When I first wrote about the bin Laden killing on Monday, I suggested that the intense (and understandable) emotional response to his being dead would almost certainly drown out any discussions of the legality, ethics, or precedents created by this event. That, I think, has largely been borne out, at least in the U.S. (one poll shows 86% of Americans favor the killing, though that’s hardly universal: a poll in Germany finds 64% view this as “no reason to rejoice,” while 52% believe an attempt should have been made to arrest him; many European newspapers have harshly criticized U.S. actions; and German Prime Minister Angela Merkel’s declaration of happiness over bin Laden’s death provoked widespread criticism even in her own party). I expected — and fully understand — that many people’s view of the bin Laden killing is shaped first and foremost by happiness over his death.

But what has surprised me somewhat is how little interest there seems to be in finding out what actually happened here. We know very little about the circumstances of bin Laden’s killing, because the U.S. government has issued so many contradictory claims, which in turn contradict the reported claims of those at the scene. When I wrote about this on Monday, I said that the use of force would be justified if, as the U.S. Government claimed, he was violently resisting his capture. But that turned out to be totally false. It’s now beyond dispute that bin Laden was unarmed when killed and there was virtually no violent resistence in the house. Still, the range of possibilities for what actually happened is vast — everything from he was lunging for his AK-47 to he was already captured when shot (in front of his family) to the order from the start was to kill, not capture, him — and I personally don’t see how it’s possible to assess the justifiability (or legality) of what took place without knowing which of those are true.



Beyond the apparent indifference to how this killing took place, what has also surprised me somewhat is the lack of interest in trying to figure out how the bin Laden killing fits into broader principles and viewpoints about state power and the War on Terror. I’ve seen people who have spent the last decade insisting that the U.S. must accord due process to accused Terrorists before punishing them suddenly mock the notion that bin Laden should have been arrested and tried.

Beyond that, the formal position of the Democratic Party for years — since John Kerry enunciated it when running against Bush — has been that Terrorism should be primarily dealt with within a law enforcement rather than war paradigm, and that Terrorists should be viewed as criminals, not warriors; and yet many of the same people who once rejected the war paradigm now turn around and cite war theories to justify bin Laden’s killing as a “proper military target” (that isn’t necessarily contradictory — it’s possible to argue against a war paradigm while still recognizing that that’s the paradigm created by our law — but the comfort in citing war theories among those who long argued against them is quite striking). Obviously, in a law enforcement setting, one is barred from shooting an unarmed, non-resisting suspect; that can be justified only by resort to war and military theories. If you believe that Terrorists are criminals and not warriors, and that the law enforcement context is the proper one to apply, how can the shooting of an unarmed suspect be justified?

Then there’s the strange indifference to finding out whether bin Laden was actually captured before executed. Not only have reports conveyed, via Pakistani officials, that his daughter claims this (a report [like U.S. government claims] deserving substantial skepticism, though not dismissal), but also the President’s formulation when first announcing the killing provides added evidence for that possibility (though the CIA denies this happened). How can that not matter? Hasn’t the entire debate about torture centered on the proposition that states have a moral and legal obligation not to abuse helpless detainees, given that their captivity means they have been rendered harmless? Shouldn’t we want to know if bin Laden was captured before being killed, and wouldn’t that make some difference in assessing one’s views of his killing?

I think what’s really going on here is that there are a large number of people who have adopted the view that bin Laden’s death is an unadulterated Good, and it therefore simply does not matter how it happened (ends justify the means, roughly speaking). There are, I think, two broad groups adopting this mindset: (1) those, largely on the Right, who believe the U.S. is at War and anything we do to our Enemies is basically justifiable; and (2) those, mostly Democrats, who reject that view — who genuinely believe in general in due process and adherence to ostensible Western norms of justice — yet who view bin Laden as a figure of such singular Evil (whether in reality or as a symbol) that they’re willing to make an exception in his case, willing to waive away their principles just for him: creating the Osama bin Laden Exception.

Although I don’t agree with it, I have a healthy respect for that latter reaction. None of us is a pure rationality machine. We all at some point depart from our principles in particular cases, or find reasons to make exceptions, or simply view the outcome as so desirable that we don’t care how it can be reconciled with our claimed views. But I think if one is going to do that here, then one is obligated to acknowledge it and then grapple with what it means and what the implications are — rather than just pretending that it’s not happening.

That’s why I found this confession from Jonathan Capehart of The Washington Post‘s Editorial page to be so commendable as an act of intellectual honesty and even courage. Capehart explains that, if you had asked him even a month ago, he would have said that he wanted bin Laden brought to trial — not killed without process — and would have vehemently objected to the use of torture to find him. But upon hearing the news of his death, Capehart was so happy at the outcome that he did not care about those principles at all:

But a funny thing happened when my feelings smacked up against the reality of bin Laden’s sudden and violent death.

When questions started being asked about the role enhanced interrogation techniques may have played, I found myself thinking, “I don’t care what was done.” When the question about whether he should have been captured instead of killed arose, I found myself not caring that bin Laden took two bullets to the head. What I cared about was that bin Laden was dead.

John Cole was equally forthright about this:

I’m the hypocrite here. I’m stridently against extrajudicial killings, the death penalty, targeted assassination, etc. I’d wager most of you are, too.

But when I heard that Osama had been killed, I’ll be damned if I didn’t think “Thank God that monster is gone.” Sure, in my ideal world he’d be brought back to the US, tried, and then imprisoned for the rest of his life. But you know what? I can not honestly say I give a damned that he took a double tap to the skull. Sorry. And I’d be also willing to bet that is where most of you all are- this may or may not have been legal, but you don’t give a shit, because that scumbag is at the bottom of an ocean somewhere and got what he deserved. I’d be lying if I didn’t admit that a primitive part of me was sort of sad he didn’t experience any pain.

What Capehart and Cole are expressing is the Osama bin Laden Exception: yes, I believe in all these principles of due process and restraining unfettered Executive killing and the like, but in this one case, I don’t care if those are violated. Like I said, though I strongly disagree with that view, I understand and respect it, particularly given the honesty with which it’s expressed.

My principal objection to it — aside from the fact that I think those principles shouldn’t be violated because they’re inherently right (which is what makes them principles) — is that there’s no principled way to confine it to bin Laden. If this makes sense for bin Laden, why not for other top accused Al Qaeda leaders? Why shouldn’t the same thing be done to Anwar al-Awlaki, the U.S. citizen who has been allegedly linked by the Government to far more attacks over the last several years than bin Laden? At Guantanamo sits Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, the alleged operational mastermind of 9/11 — who was, if one believes the allegations, at least as responsible for the attack as bin Laden and about whom there is as little perceived dobut; why shouldn’t we just take him out back today and shoot him in the head and dump his corpse into the ocean rather than trying him?

Once you embrace the bin Laden Exception, how does it stay confined to him? Isn’t it necessarily the case that you’re endorsing the right of the U.S. Government to treat any top-level Terrorists in similar fashion? Again, this isn’t an argument that the bin Laden killing was illegal; it very well may have been legal, depending on the facts. But if we just cheer for this without caring about those facts, isn’t it clear that we’re endorsing a dangerous unfettered power — one that runs afoul of multiple principles which opponents of the Bush/Cheney template have long defended?

For me, the better principles are those established by the Nuremberg Trials, and numerous other war crimes trials accorded some of history’s most gruesome monsters. It should go without saying for all but the most intellectually and morally stunted that none of this has anything to do with sympathy for bin Laden. Just as was true for objections to the torture regime or Guantanamo or CIA black sites, this is about the standards to which we and our Government adhere, who we are as a nation and a people.

The Allied powers could easily have taken every Nazi war criminal they found and summarily executed them without many people caring. But they didn’t do that, and the reason they didn’t is because how the Nazis were punished would determine not only the character of the punishing nations, but more importantly, would set the standards for how future punishment would be doled out. Here was the very first paragraph uttered by lead Nuremberg prosecutor Robert Jackson when he stood up to deliver his Opening Statement:

The privilege of opening the first trial in history for crimes against the peace of the world imposes a grave responsibility. The wrongs which we seek to condemn and punish have been so calculated, so malignant, and so devastating, that civilization cannot tolerate their being ignored, because it cannot survive their being repeated. That four great nations, flushed with victory and stung with injury stay the hand of vengeance and voluntarily submit their captive enemies to the judgment of the law is one of the most significant tributes that Power has ever paid to Reason.

And here was the last thing he said:

Civilization asks whether law is so laggard as to be utterly helpless to deal with crimes of this magnitude by criminals of this order of importance. It does not expect that you can make war impossible. It does expect that your juridical action will put the forces of international law, its precepts, its prohibitions and, most of all, its sanctions, on the side of peace, so that men and women of good will, in all countries, may have “leave to live by no man’s leave, underneath the law.”

I actually believe in those precepts. And if those principles were good enough for those responsible for Nazi atrocities, they are good enough for the likes of Osama bin Laden. It’s possible they weren’t applicable here; if he couldn’t be safely captured because of his attempted resistence, then capturing him wasn’t a reasonable possibility. But it seems increasingly clear that the objective here was to kill, not capture him, no matter what his conduct was. That, at the very least, raises a whole host of important questions about what we endorse and who we are that deserves serious examination — much more than has been prompted by this celebrated killing.

* * * * *

Yesterday, I recorded a one-hour BloggingheadsTV session with the former Bush speechwriter, the neoconservative David Frum, debating these and related matters.

Glenn Greenwald

Follow Glenn Greenwald on Twitter: @ggreenwald.

More Related Stories

Featured Slide Shows

  • Share on Twitter
  • Share on Facebook
  • 1 of 11
  • Close
  • Fullscreen
  • Thumbnails

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Beautiful Darkness by Fabien Vehlmann & Kerascoët
    Kerascoët's lovely, delicate pen-and-watercolor art -- all intricate botanicals, big eyes and flowing hair -- gives this fairy story a deceptively pretty finish. You find out quickly, however, that these are the heartless and heedless fairies of folk legend, not the sentimental sprites beloved by the Victorians and Disney fans. A host of tiny hominid creatures must learn to survive in the forest after fleeing their former home -- a little girl who lies dead in the woods. The main character, Aurora, tries to organize the group into a community, but most of her cohort is too capricious, lazy and selfish to participate for long. There's no real moral to this story, which is refreshing in itself, beyond the perpetual lessons that life is hard and you have to be careful whom you trust. Never has ugly truth been given a prettier face.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Climate Changed: A Personal Journey Through the Science by Philippe Squarzoni
    Squarzoni is a French cartoonist who makes nonfiction graphic novels about contemporary issues and politics. While finishing up a book about France under Jacques Chirac, he realized that when it came to environmental policy, he didn't know what he was talking about. "Climate Changed" is the result of his efforts to understand what has been happening to the planet, a striking combination of memoir and data that ruminates on a notoriously elusive, difficult and even imponderable subject. Panels of talking heads dispensing information (or Squarzoni discussing the issues with his partner) are juxtaposed with detailed and meticulous yet lyrical scenes from the author's childhood, the countryside where he takes a holiday and a visit to New York. He uses his own unreachable past as a way to grasp the imminent transformation of the Earth. The result is both enlightening and unexpectedly moving.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Here by Richard McGuire
    A six-page version of this innovative work by a regular contributor to the New Yorker first appeared in RAW magazine 25 years ago. Each two-page spread depicts a single place, sometimes occupied by a corner of a room, over the course of 4 billion years. The oldest image is a blur of pink and purple gases; others depict hazmat-suited explorers from 300 years in the future. Inset images show the changing decor and inhabitants of the house throughout its existence: family photos, quarrels, kids in Halloween costumes, a woman reading a book, a cat walking across the floor. The cumulative effect is serene and ravishing, an intimation of the immensity of time and the wonder embodied in the humblest things.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Kill My Mother by Jules Feiffer
    The legendary Pulitzer Prize-winning cartoonist delivers his debut graphic novel at 85, a deliriously over-the-top blend of classic movie noir and melodrama that roams from chiaroscuro Bay City to Hollywood to a USO gig in the Pacific theater of World War II. There's a burnt-out drunk of a private eye, but the story is soon commandeered by a multigenerational collection of ferocious women, including a mysterious chanteuse who never speaks, a radio comedy writer who makes a childhood friend the butt of a hit series and a ruthless dame intent on making her whiny coward of a husband into a star. There are disguises, musical numbers and plenty of gunfights, but the drawing is the main attraction. Nobody convey's bodies in motion more thrillingly than Feiffer, whether they're dancing, running or duking it out. The kid has promise.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    The Motherless Oven by Rob Davis
    This is a weird one, but in the nervy surreal way that word-playful novels like "A Clockwork Orange" or "Ulysses" are weird. The main character, a teenage schoolboy named Scarper Lee, lives in a world where it rains knives and people make their own parents, contraptions that can be anything from a tiny figurine stashable in a pocket to biomorphic boiler-like entities that seem to have escaped from Dr. Seuss' nightmares. Their homes are crammed with gadgets they call gods and instead of TV they watch a hulu-hoop-size wheel of repeating images that changes with the day of the week. They also know their own "death day," and Scarper's is coming up fast. Maybe that's why he runs off with the new girl at school, a real troublemaker, and the obscurely dysfunctional Castro, whose mother is a cageful of talking parakeets. A solid towline of teenage angst holds this manically inventive vision together, and proves that some graphic novels can rival the text-only kind at their own game.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    NOBROW 9: It's Oh So Quiet
    For each issue, the anthology magazine put out by this adventurous U.K.-based publisher of independent graphic design, illustration and comics gives 45 artists a four-color palette and a theme. In the ninth issue, the theme is silence, and the results are magnificent and full of surprises. The comics, each told in images only, range from atmospheric to trippy to jokey to melancholy to epic to creepy. But the two-page illustrations are even more powerful, even if it's not always easy to see how they pertain to the overall concept of silence. Well, except perhaps for the fact that so many of them left me utterly dumbstruck with visual delight.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Over Easy by Mimi Pond
    When Pond was a broke art student in the 1970s, she took a job at a neighborhood breakfast spot in Oakland, a place with good food, splendid coffee and an endlessly entertaining crew of short-order cooks, waitresses, dishwashers and regular customers. This graphic memoir, influenced by the work of Pond's friend, Alison Bechdel, captures the funky ethos of the time, when hippies, punks and disco aficionados mingled in a Bay Area at the height of its eccentricity. The staff of the Imperial Cafe were forever swapping wisecracks and hopping in and out of each other's beds, which makes them more or less like every restaurant team in history. There's an intoxicating esprit de corps to a well-run everyday joint like the Imperial Cafe, and never has the delight in being part of it been more winningly portrayed.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    The Shadow Hero by Gene Luen Yang and Sonny Liew
    You don't have to be a superhero fan to be utterly charmed by Yang and Liew's revival of a little-known character created in the 1940s by the cartoonist Chu Hing. This version of the Green Turtle, however, is rich in characterization, comedy and luscious period detail from the Chinatown of "San Incendio" (a ringer for San Francisco). Hank, son of a mild-mannered grocer, would like to follow in his father's footsteps, but his restless mother (the book's best character and drawn with masterful nuance by Liew) has other ideas after her thrilling encounter with a superhero. Yang's story effortlessly folds pathos into humor without stooping to either slapstick or cheap "darkness." This is that rare tribute that far surpasses the thing it celebrates.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Shoplifter by Michael Cho
    Corinna Park, former English major, works, unhappily, in a Toronto advertising agency. When the dissatisfaction of the past five years begins to oppress her, she lets off steam by pilfering magazines from a local convenience store. Cho's moody character study is as much about city life as it is about Corinna. He depicts her falling asleep in front of the TV in her condo, brooding on the subway, roaming the crowded streets after a budding romance goes awry. Like a great short story, this is a simple tale of a young woman figuring out how to get her life back, but if feels as if it contains so much of contemporary existence -- its comforts, its loneliness, its self-deceptions -- suspended in wintery amber.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Through the Woods by Emily Carroll
    This collection of archetypal horror, fairy and ghost stories, all about young girls, comes lushly decked in Carroll's inky black, snowy white and blood-scarlet art. A young bride hears her predecessor's bones singing from under the floorboards, two friends make the mistake of pretending to summon the spirits of the dead, a family of orphaned siblings disappears one by one into the winter nights. Carroll's color-saturated images can be jagged, ornate and gruesome, but she also knows how to chill with absence, shadows and a single staring eye. Literary readers who cherish the work of Kelly Link or the late Angela Carter's collection, "The Bloody Chamber," will adore the violent beauty on these pages.

  • Recent Slide Shows

Comments

0 Comments

Comment Preview

Your name will appear as username ( settings | log out )

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href=""> <b> <em> <strong> <i> <blockquote>