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On Killing Unarmed Human Beings

2011 May 13

When the news came last week that Navy SEALs had disposed of one of the world’s most wicked, deluded, and powerful people, the impression was given that he took his last breath with a rifle in his hand. The White House reports initially read that Osama bin Laden was killed in a “firefight” with SEALs during a raid of the al Qaeda leader’s Abbottabad compound. The following day, this news was amended with the detail that bin Laden had in fact been unarmed during the short time he was being pocked with American bullets. Whether or not this detail was intended to be an afterthought is unknown to me, but it is certainly not inconsequential. When the legality of bin Laden’s deletion was questioned, White House Press Secretary Jay Carney assured reporters that the raid “was conducted in a manner fully consistent with the laws of war.” This may well be true, but it stunningly neglects the fact that the “War on Terror” is not actually a war.

Without the excuse of war it is difficult to understand how the President managed this murder within the bounds of international and domestic law. That the Obama administration offered a $25 million reward for bin Laden’s death or capture had always connoted to me the same brutish thuggery of a mafia hit. Executive Order 12333 complicates this question, stating: “No person employed by or acting on behalf of the United States Government shall engage in, or conspire to engage in, assassination.” The SEALs, certainly, were not working independently in order to receive a monetary reward (though many people feel they should receive one). However, their official instructions, though predictably difficult to identify beneath euphemistic political jargon, seem to lack subtlety. CIA director Leon Panetta said last week: “The authority [during the raid] was to kill bin Laden. Obviously, under the rules of engagement, if he had in fact thrown up his hands, surrendered, and didn’t appear to be representing any kind of threat, then they were to capture him. But they had full authority to kill him.” It has been thus far impossible to vividly render bin Laden’s final scene, but Panetta had this to say:

To be frank, I don’t think he had a lot of time to say anything. It was a firefight going up that compound. And by the time they got to the third floor and found bin Laden, I think it – this was all split-second action on the part of the SEALs. …I don’t believe [he was armed]. But obviously, there were some firefights that were going on as these guys were making their way up the staircase in that compound. And when they got up there, there were some threatening moves that were made that clearly represented a clear threat to our guys. And that’s the reason they fired.

When asked what constituted the “threatening moves” that bin Laden made, a hitherto unnamed U.S. Official could not elaborate, flaccidly indicating that “[bin Laden] didn’t hold up his hands and surrender.” I wonder just what an unarmed bin Laden must have been doing that would have constituted a serious threat to the lives of the country’s most elite military force. Apparently the SEALs were adequately prepared to capture bin Laden, and it seems to me a shame that the only deterrent from eliminating him on sight was if he were to throw his hands in the air. Surely the Navy SEALs know how to detain a disobedient person. Local police forces manage this feat daily with a pair of handcuffs, and surely if the SEALs were willing to put a bullet in bin Laden’s head, they should have been willing to put one in each leg. Perhaps the SEALs felt they had exhausted all non-lethal options by the time they shot him, but this seems incongruent with the version of events rendered by Panetta, which hardly gives bin Laden time to speak a word before being promptly unmade.

What nimbly steers this affair away from political assassination is the Authorization for Use of Military Force passed hastily by President Bush a week after the World Trade Center towers went down. The resolution is unabashedly—even suspiciously—vengeful, granting the United States government the power to do what it pleases with anyone even remotely involved in the September 11th attacks. It reads thus:

That the President is authorized to use all necessary and appropriate force against those nations, organizations, or persons he determines planned, authorized, committed, or aided the terrorist attacks that occurred on September 11, 2001, or harbored such organizations or persons, in order to prevent any future acts of international terrorism against the United States by such nations, organizations or persons.

The scope of this resolution is massive. It has prompted our engagement in two wars and permitted the creation and perpetuation of perhaps the most legally and morally troubling prison in our country’s history. Also, it immediately elevates bin Laden’s status from a criminal (with the right to a trial) to an enemy combatant, consequently granting the United States military the legal authority to, say, neutralize him on sight. With bin Laden classified as a combatant, the SEALs were well within their rights to kill him whether he was armed or not. Apparently, the SEALs are specifically not required to invite surrender before firing. Section 8.2.3.3 of the Law of Naval Operations states quite clearly: “The mere fact that a combatant or enemy force is retreating or fleeing the battlefield, without some other positive indication of intent, does not constitute an attempt to surrender, even if such combatant or force has abandoned his or its arms or equipment.” That the indication of intent might be unclear in the aforementioned case evades reason. However, though the authority exists for an unarmed, fleeing combatant to be unconditionally killed, one might hope that authority is not mistaken for policy in such cases.

We have been told since the news broke that “justice has been done.” I am not convinced. I am, however, sufficiently convinced that revenge has been done. No matter how horrific the initial crime, revenge can never be justice because revenge is never sober. What is most troubling about Bush’s resolution is that it makes synonymous the two. Historically, we have written our laws to thoroughly navigate the difference between these motives. One of the most striking problems with killing bin Laden on sight is that this inherently deprives him of his right to a trial. The maintenance of this right is imperative to the execution of justice.

There is another contradiction inherent to his elimination: the horror of bin Laden’s crime is that it infringed upon the very right that he must himself be granted; that is the right, at least, to life. One author at the Washington Post penned a column entitled “Human Rights Watch or Terrorist Rights Watch?” condemning the concern of various human rights organizations for bin Laden’s treatment. Of course, this question assumes that human rights and terrorist rights are different things, and, indeed, that humans and terrorists are different things. In fact, the measure of our human rights can be no better defined than by the rights we extend to terrorists.

That the world is a better place without bin Laden is, if I may, not a sufficient reason to off him wantonly. I submit that the world would be a far better place if he were alive to be tried by a court, if only that the rest of the world might be sent the message that this country, no matter how severely injured, values justice over vengeance.

2 Responses leave one →
  1. Jacqueline Moss permalink
    May 15, 2011

    The death of Bin Laden and the aftermath of his assassination has been scary and fascinating. While I am relieved that man who caused so much death and destruction is dead, I was also very disturbed by many of the reactions of other people. I think it is wrong to celebrate death like that, to have a party in the street. Its just…weird to celebrate an assassination or a murder in that way. Its a weird ethical moment in this country right now.

  2. May 25, 2011

    There were a lot of points within the article that will make for some interesting debate. The part that bugs me, though, is that if the SEAL’s had captured him alive (assuming he would have allowed himself to be captured) and brought him into our custody, it may well have been the case that many ransoms and kidnapping would have occurred. If the probability of his followers to not seek recourse by increasing threats of terrorism to get him released were calculated to be low, then yes, I would be more willing to have the SEAL’s detain him at all costs. Thanks.

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