Latest post on Left Futures

Bin Laden, extra judicial killing – and the shining example that was Nuremburg

In  the  days  of the Wild West, the posters used to read ‘Wanted! Dead or Alive’.  Now  in  the White House we must presume they read, ‘Wanted! Dead, Not Alive!’ This  is  the  image  that  President  Obama  and  his administration have conveyed  through  the bizarre but officially sanctioned photograph showing them watching the military operation to kill Osama Bin Laden.

Am I the only person who feels disturbed by this picture? Anyone  who  has experienced revulsion at the thought of fanatics watching videos  of  ‘infidels’  being  beheaded  by Islamists might feel at least a twinge of unease over the White House shot, taken in the situation room. What  is  its  purpose? Is it to emphasise that the commander-in-chief and his  cohorts — Vice President Joe Biden, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, members  of  the  national  security team — have the stomach to watch their orders  carried  out?  Is  it  hoped  that  it will become an iconic image,defining Obama’s presidency? Is it meant to impress?

It  seems that it has impressed the vast majority of Americans who believe that  the  SEAL  team  that killed bin Laden were carrying out a legitimate military  operation.  But  a  quiet  minority  fear  that  they  committed extra-judicial murder. And amid the clamour of celebration last week there was a handful of brave dissenters  on  this  side  of  the  Atlantic  who  questioned whether this exercise  in summary justice was the unqualified triumph that the presidentand his team claimed.

The  Archbishop  of  Canterbury  said  the killing of an unarmed Osama Bin Laden  had left ‘a very uncomfortable feeling’. Geoffrey Robertson QC said: ‘It’s not justice. It’s a perversion of the term.’ Whether  or not it did represent ‘justice’ seems certain to be long argued because  the legal waters are murky. Executive Order 11905 issued by Gerald Ford  in 1976 in response to alleged abuses by US intelligence operatives — namely plots against Fidel Castro — forbids political assassinations, but an act  of Congress passed in 2001 authorises the president  (then George Bush)  to use ‘all necessary and appropriate force’ against the perpetrators of 9/11 and bin Laden’s killing certainly fits the bill here.

There  are  a number of complex issues involved. There are those who say the US is ‘at war’ and therefore allowed to kill enemy combatants. Yet wars are  fought  between  countries  by  conventional  armies,  according  to well-defined  rules, not against organisations — if indeed al Qaeda,  little more  than  a  loose  association  of  criminals,  can  even  be  called an ‘organisation’.  We are supposedly waging a war against drugs but we don’t ‘take out’ drug dealing kingpins. Even  in  conventional warfare, assassination is a contentious area.

Prime Minister Winston Churchill didn’t assassinate his wartime opponents. He and President Harry Truman put the Nazi leadership on trial for ‘crimes against humanity’ at Nuremburg. In  other  words,  these real war leaders had the moral confidence in what they  were  doing and what they stood for to allow the judicial proceedings that  eventually  saw  some  of  the Nazi war leaders hanged. The Nuremburg Trials  provided  the  basis for the eventual creation of the International Criminal  Court,  to  which  Truman’s successors have resolutely refused to sign up . Now, perhaps,  we know why.

And  when it comes to crimes against humanity, few — including bin Laden — can rival the record of the notorious Adolf Eichmann, architect of the Nazi death camps who was able to tell Himmler in 1944 that four million Jews had been  exterminated. He fled to Argentina, where he was subsequently tracked down  by  Israeli  commandoes. He wasn’t assassinated. He was put on trial, found guilty and then hanged. Could  Bin Laden — unarmed and in his home — be classified as a combatant? This  is  difficult  to establish and getting more difficult by the day as, worryingly,  the  story  of  what  happened  in  Abbottabad  is  constantly changing.

Then  there is the question of Pakistani sovereignty. The SEALs might have acted  in  accordance  with the law of their own country but they were in a foreign country that is supposedly an ally of the US, without the knowledge of  the  government  of  that  country.  Imagine  the  outrage  of  the  US administration  if,  for instance, Islamabad tracked down a deadly enemy ofPakistan  to  the  US  and  had Pakistani troops kill him in, say, suburban Boston. When  Mossad  tracked  down and killed in Europe those responsible for the Munich Olympics massacre, the US was fiercely critical.    Israeli  agents  (presumably)  –  six  of whom used fake UK passports -assassinated  Hamas  commander  Mahmoud al-Mabhouh in Dubai in January lastyear  and  there  was  outrage  in Britain. Yet we are meant to applaud the events of May 2.

Osama  Bin  Laden  was  a  self-confessed  murderer of innocents. The spoiled  dilettante Saudi and his al Qaeda followers have caused mayhem and murder  in  pursuit of their warped dream of an Islamic caliphate – a dream that most Muslims quite rightly view as a nightmare. I  lived  in  New York when I worked there as a television journalist. I knew  people  who  used to work in the Twin Towers and I have reported from the gaping hole in the Manhattan sky  line where the Twin Towers once stood proud. So bin Laden and his band of medieval obscurantists would have had no tea and sympathy from me.

But  basic  legal principles must be applied blindly and universally — not just when it suits us and not just when it is convenient. Yes,  it  would  have  been  immensely  difficult and dangerous to try bin Laden.  That  does not mean that the attempt should not have been made, and Geoffrey Robertson has argued that it should have been.  Bin  Laden could not have been tried at the International Criminal Court because  its  jurisdiction runs from 2002 but an ad hoc tribunal could have been  set  up  in  The  Hague  by the UN Security Council, presided over by international  jurists. Robertson also points to the fact that Kalid Sheikh Mohammed  — another alleged 9/11 plotter — will shortly go on trial before a military  commission  at  Guantanamo  Bay.  And  let us not forget Slobodan Milosevic was put on trial as was Saddam Hussein.

Those  who  say  bin Laden got what he deserved ignore the fact that, in reality,  he  got what he wanted. In the twisted minds of his sympathisers, he  died  a  martyr,  a brave and defiant general in the holy war. How much more  damaging  to the cause of al Qaeda had he been exposed in the dock as mad  and  sad, his hate-filled philosophy lacking any coherent structure or scriptural underpinning. In  ordering  this  operation,  and then deciding who was to take the best seat  in  the stalls to watch its execution, President Obama – a former law professor — has seemingly ignored principles extant throughout much of his country. Most states in the Union have abandoned the death penalty and the practice of allowing people to watch convicted felons being electrocuted or injected to death from glass booths. The  United States also quite rightly urges other nations to observe human rights and the due process of the law. So the country is hardly setting the best example to the generals in Burma or the thugs around President Mugabe.I believe President Obama is today diminished by the manner of bin Laden’s departure, even if many in main street America are currently applauding.

This blog also appears at


  1. Jon Hudson says:

    I understood that the video footage of the raid only went up to the time the squad entered the building. Have you learnt otherwise?

  2. clara dou says:

    it is true: he was wanted dead. I think that justice and extrajudicial killings are incompatible concepts… Some more good reading about it:

© 2024 Left Futures | Powered by WordPress | theme originated from PrimePress by Ravi Varma