If the mission to neutralize Osama bin Laden were a blockbuster movie, the screen would have almost certainly faded to black as soon as the accused terrorist's death was announced. No doubt, the credits would roll to Queen's "We Will Rock You" and then the big "The End" would appear.
Alas, real life is not one of Hollywood's many Pentagon-sponsored flicks -- and as hard as President Obama tried to portray last week's events as proof "that America can do whatever we set our mind to," the mission and its cloudy aftermath have raised troubling questions about the "whatever" part. Among the most important of those queries are:
-- Is it legal for a president to issue extrajudicial "kill only" orders -- that is, orders to kill but not capture a suspect, even if that suspect surrenders? United Nations investigators are now asking this very question after Reuters cited an Obama administration official in reporting that U.S. troops were "under orders to kill (bin Laden), not capture him."
Tellingly, the revelation of the possible "kill only" order came as the administration was retracting claims that bin Laden was armed and resisting arrest, and just as the British press reported on bin Laden's 12-year-old daughter alleging that her father was first captured alive and then summarily executed.
-- Who is the president now prohibited from executing sans due process? At first glance, the answer might seem to be "anyone not named Osama bin Laden." Except, days after the bin Laden mission, Obama ordered the assassination of U.S. citizen Anwar al-Awlaki, even though Awlaki hasn't been charged with -- much less convicted of -- a crime. If this is now acceptable, whom else can the president order killed without judicial review?
-- Why were the Nazis entitled to due process, but accused terrorists aren't? Nazis killed millions of innocents and were convicted at the much-celebrated Nuremberg trials. Yet, many insist bin Laden and other al-Qaida leaders must be executed or detained without a similar trial because a courtroom drama would supposedly generate a circus (this, as if Nuremberg were some low-key affair).
Why the double standard in confronting the Nazis and al-Qaida? Is it because since bravely facing down Hitler, we became a nation of cowards? Are we today so intimidated by the possibility of al-Qaida retribution that we're willing to subvert the ideals enshrined in our Constitution? And if so, isn't that letting the terrorists win?
This is not easy stuff to ponder, especially in a nation that has so radically changed over the last century. Whereas World War II America strove to embody Norman Rockwell's "Four Freedoms" painting of the patriot standing up and asking questions, America circa 2011 is more a country of Howard Stern and "South Park" -- a society that implores fellow countrymen to "shut up, sit down!" and tells inquiring citizens that "if you don't like America, you can get out!"
But regardless of such ubiquitous vitriol, we still need answers -- and not just because the international community wants them, but because Americans have a right to know what "America" is, beyond just the "A" in a drunken "USA!" chant.
Is America a nation "of laws, not of men," as John Adams promised? Or has it become another synonym for lawless tyranny?
Is "America" a place that obligates its leaders to respect the Constitution? Or is America governed by Richard Nixon's notion that "if the president does it, that means that it is not illegal"?
And perhaps the moment's most disturbing query is the simplest of all: Is America a country where self-reflection is valued? Or are we a country where these critical questions are no longer permitted?