The consequences of this hemispheric plague still, of course, reverberate.
From Kidnapping and Torture to Assassination
All of this, and much more like it, is dismissed as of little consequence, and forgotten. Those whose mission is to rule the world enjoy a more comforting picture, articulated well enough in the current issue of the prestigious (and valuable) journal of the Royal Institute of International Affairs in London . The lead article discusses "the visionary international order" of the "second half of the twentieth century" marked by "the universalization of an American vision of commercial prosperity." There is something to that account, but it does not quite convey the perception of those at the wrong end of the guns.
The same is true of the assassination of Osama bin Laden, which brings to an end at least a phase in the "war on terror" re-declared by President George W. Bush on the second 9/11. Let us turn to a few thoughts on that event and its significance.
On May 1, 2011, Osama bin Laden was killed in his virtually unprotected compound by a raiding mission of 79 Navy SEALs, who entered Pakistan by helicopter. After many lurid stories were provided by the government and withdrawn, official reports made it increasingly clear that the operation was a planned assassination, multiply violating elementary norms of international law, beginning with the invasion itself.
There appears to have been no attempt to apprehend the unarmed victim, as presumably could have been done by 79 commandos facing no opposition -- except, they report, from his wife, also unarmed, whom they shot in self-defense when she "lunged" at them, according to the White House.
A plausible reconstruction of the events is provided by veteran Middle East correspondent Yochi Dreazen and colleagues in the Atlantic. Dreazen, formerly the military correspondent for the Wall Street Journal, is senior correspondent for the National Journal Group covering military affairs and national security. According to their investigation, White House planning appears not to have considered the option of capturing bin Laden alive: "The administration had made clear to the military's clandestine Joint Special Operations Command that it wanted bin Laden dead, according to a senior U.S. official with knowledge of the discussions. A high-ranking military officer briefed on the assault said the SEALs knew their mission was not to take him alive."
The authors add: "For many at the Pentagon and the Central Intelligence Agency who had spent nearly a decade hunting bin Laden, killing the militant was a necessary and justified act of vengeance." Furthermore, "capturing bin Laden alive would have also presented the administration with an array of nettlesome legal and political challenges." Better, then, to assassinate him, dumping his body into the sea without the autopsy considered essential after a killing -- an act that predictably provoked both anger and skepticism in much of the Muslim world.
As the Atlantic inquiry observes, "The decision to kill bin Laden outright was the clearest illustration to date of a little-noticed aspect of the Obama administration's counter-terror policy. The Bush administration captured thousands of suspected militants and sent them to detention camps in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Guantanamo Bay. The Obama administration, by contrast, has focused on eliminating individual terrorists rather than attempting to take them alive." That is one significant difference between Bush and Obama. The authors quote former West German Chancellor Helmut Schmidt, who "told German TV that the U.S. raid was 'quite clearly a violation of international law' and that bin Laden should have been detained and put on trial," contrasting Schmidt with U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder, who "defended the decision to kill bin Laden although he didn't pose an immediate threat to the Navy SEALs, telling a House panel... that the assault had been 'lawful, legitimate and appropriate in every way.'"
The disposal of the body without autopsy was also criticized by allies. The highly regarded British barrister Geoffrey Robertson, who supported the intervention and opposed the execution largely on pragmatic grounds, nevertheless described Obama's claim that "justice was done" as an "absurdity" that should have been obvious to a former professor of constitutional law. Pakistan law "requires a colonial inquest on violent death, and international human rights law insists that the 'right to life' mandates an inquiry whenever violent death occurs from government or police action. The U.S. is therefore under a duty to hold an inquiry that will satisfy the world as to the true circumstances of this killing."
Robertson usefully reminds us that "[i]t was not always thus. When the time came to consider the fate of men much more steeped in wickedness than Osama bin Laden -- the Nazi leadership -- the British government wanted them hanged within six hours of capture. President Truman demurred, citing the conclusion of Justice Robert Jackson that summary execution 'would not sit easily on the American conscience or be remembered by our children with pride... the only course is to determine the innocence or guilt of the accused after a hearing as dispassionate as the times will permit and upon a record that will leave our reasons and motives clear.'"
Eric Margolis comments that "Washington has never made public the evidence of its claim that Osama bin Laden was behind the 9/11 attacks," presumably one reason why "polls show that fully a third of American respondents believe that the U.S. government and/or Israel were behind 9/11," while in the Muslim world skepticism is much higher. "An open trial in the U.S. or at the Hague would have exposed these claims to the light of day," he continues, a practical reason why Washington should have followed the law.
In societies that profess some respect for law, suspects are apprehended and brought to fair trial. I stress "suspects." In June 2002, FBI head Robert Mueller, in what the Washington Post described as "among his most detailed public comments on the origins of the attacks," could say only that "investigators believe the idea of the Sept. 11 attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon came from al Qaeda leaders in Afghanistan, the actual plotting was done in Germany, and the financing came through the United Arab Emirates from sources in Afghanistan."
What the FBI believed and thought in June 2002 they didn't know eight months earlier, when Washington dismissed tentative offers by the Taliban (how serious, we do not know) to permit a trial of bin Laden if they were presented with evidence. Thus, it is not true, as President Obama claimed in his White House statement after bin Laden's death, that "[w]e quickly learned that the 9/11 attacks were carried out by al-Qaeda."
There has never been any reason to doubt what the FBI believed in mid-2002, but that leaves us far from the proof of guilt required in civilized societies -- and whatever the evidence might be, it does not warrant murdering a suspect who could, it seems, have been easily apprehended and brought to trial. Much the same is true of evidence provided since. Thus, the 9/11 Commission provided extensive circumstantial evidence of bin Laden's role in 9/11, based primarily on what it had been told about confessions by prisoners in Guantanamo. It is doubtful that much of that would hold up in an independent court, considering the ways confessions were elicited. But in any event, the conclusions of a congressionally authorized investigation, however convincing one finds them, plainly fall short of a sentence by a credible court, which is what shifts the category of the accused from suspect to convicted.
There is much talk of bin Laden's "confession," but that was a boast, not a confession, with as much credibility as my "confession" that I won the Boston marathon. The boast tells us a lot about his character, but nothing about his responsibility for what he regarded as a great achievement, for which he wanted to take credit.