Asking hard questions about the morality of killing Osama bin Laden is not being effete and cowardly.
The killing of Osama bin Laden has become a battlefield of its own, pitting effete, hand-wringing talking heads against square-jawed, decisive columnists.
Amongst the hand-wringers are old campaigners for moral equivalence. Celebrity human rights lawyer Geoffrey Robertson (yes, the one who wanted to jail the Pope) immediately declared that taking out OBL was a perversion of justice. "Justice means taking someone to court, finding them guilty upon evidence and sentencing them." he said. "This man has been subject to summary execution, and… it may well have been a cold-blooded assassination."
Predictably, radical warhorse Noam Chomsky argued that deaths of thousands in Iraq were far more evil than crimes for which OBL was allegedly responsible. “We might ask ourselves how we would be reacting if Iraqi commandos landed at George W. Bush’s compound, assassinated him, and dumped his body in the Atlantic.”
For such scruples and assertions of moral equivalence, the machismo team has nothing but scorn, beginning with President Obama, who thought it was one of the most satisfying moments of his presidency. "Anyone who would question that the perpetrator of mass murder on American soil didn't deserve what he got needs to have their head examined."
New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd was sounding a lot like a shotgun-toting frontier housewife in a TV Western than the über-liberal feminist she is. Her response to the news that the murderer of hundreds of New Yorkers was dead was stridently patriotic: “I want memory, and justice, and revenge… Morally and operationally, this was counterterrorism at its finest. We have nothing to apologize for.”
Brendan O’Neill, of the left-leaning Spiked, was contemptuous of critics of America’s “cowboy” venture. “The now widespread ‘uncomfortable feeling’ with the shooting of bin Laden is really an expression of moral reluctance, even of moral cowardice, a desire to avoid taking any decisive action.”
Without all the facts, it is a waste of time to discuss whether killing OBL was an “extra-judicial killing”, an assassination, or pre-emptive self-defence. Narratives from US spokesmen have been sketchy and conflicting. Were the Seals ordered to capture or kill or just to kill? Was OBL capable of resisting? Why wasn’t the compound better guarded?
It will probably be some time before all the details become public and by that time no one except Noam Chomsky will care. Osama bin Laden was a fanatical terrorist and an enemy of Americans and Muslims alike. Now he’s dead. Everyone is breathing a bit easier.
But closure is not an ethical argument. It is simply lazy to dismiss misgivings about the way that OBL met his maker as the scruples of an overdelicate conscience.
The death of bin Laden is not an isolated case. Rather, it is the most successful of hundreds of targeted assassinations in the War on Terror. In fact, this unconventional tactic is a key element in Obama’s strategy for eliminating al-Qaeda and the Taliban. In his election campaign he set out his policy clearly:
“The Bush administration has not acted aggressively enough to go after al Qaeda’s leadership. I would be clear that if Pakistan cannot or will not take out al Qaeda leadership when we have actionable intelligence about their whereabouts, we will act to protect the American people. There can be no safe haven for al Qaeda terrorists who killed thousands of Americans and threaten our homeland today.”
Under Obama, the use of drones has increased dramatically. According to the New American Foundation, a liberal think tank,
“Our study shows that the 236 reported drone strikes in northwest Pakistan, including 24 in 2011, from 2004 to the present have killed approximately between 1,467 and 2,334 individuals, of whom around 1,174 to 1,863 were described as militants in reliable press accounts. Thus, the true non-militant fatality rate since 2004 according to our analysis is approximately 20 percent. In 2010, it was more like five percent.”
The logic of targeted killing by remote control is inescapable for a US administration that wants to pull its troops out of Afghanistan. But the US public is hardly aware of this campaign and has never debated it in a democratic fashion.
Admittedly, civilian casualties appear to be decreasing. But it takes a peculiar morality to say that civilian deaths in a country with which the US is not at war – in fact, is an ally in the War on Terror – don’t matter much because they are declining.
Indeed, it was the opinion of a former head of the CIA that the main issue with these targeted killings is not the collateral damage but the fact that the American people were even aware of them. “The problem is that the US government no longer seems to be capable of conducting covert operations without having them reported in the press,” complained John Deutch, in a 2009 opinion piece in the Wall Street Journal.
The war on the odious regime in Libya is another arena for targeted assassination. Only 24 hours before Osama was killed, NATO missiles struck a house in Tripoli and killed one of Gaddafi’s sons and three of his grandchildren and just missed the Colonel himself. A leading organ of liberal opinion in the US, the Washington Post, thought that the assassination option was completely justified: “we think targeting Mr. Gaddafi and his sons … is as legitimate as striking al-Qaeda”.
What astonishes in this moralising is how glib and shallow is its cowboy morality. If targeted assassination of villains in Libya passes muster, how about lobbing a few missiles at the generals in Burma or the president of Syria? The worst features of the Bush Administration seem to have rubbed off on the editorial staff of one of its most trenchant critics.
Now that OBL has been successfully dealt with, voices from the Bush Administration are back in the newspapers defending waterboarding and other methods of enhanced interrogation (aka torture) because they squeezed valuable information from detainees. "It was a good program. It was legal program. It was not torture," former Vice-President Dick Cheney said recently. "I would strongly recommend we continue it." And John Yoo, who worked on interrogation policies in Bush’s Justice Department, insists that his tough measures worked.
“Obama administration sources confirm that the coercive interrogation of three al-Qaeda leaders identified the courier who led the CIA to bin Laden… Past US presidents rightly didn't allow foreign opinion to dissuade them from using the most effective means to victory. Harry Truman dropped the bomb on Japan to end World War II; Abraham Lincoln allowed Sherman's destructive march through the South. Appeasing foreign opinion is no substitute for the need to make the tough decisions that will defeat a determined enemy.”
This sounds remarkably like the much-discussed “dirty hands” theory advanced by American political scientist Michael Walzer. When faced with existential emergencies, he contended, a government can justifiably do things which would otherwise be gravely immoral – like torture or dropping atomic bombs on civilian populations. It’s not good; it’s not bad. It just has to be done.
If this is the lesson to be drawn from Osama bin Laden’s death, it is the wrong one. No decisions can be beyond ethical analysis. No governments are above morality. No necessity transcends right and wrong. To assert that necessity is the only necessary justification for acting turns men into robots – drones! The effort to assess ethically what tactics American adopts in the War on Terror is not wimpish, or effete, or cowardly. It is at the core of our humanity. Thinking ethically is what defines human dignity. If the US fights with dirty hands, then Osama bin Laden has achieved victory in his death.
Michael Cook is editor of MercatorNet.