“I mourn the loss of thousands of precious lives, but I will not rejoice in the death of one, not even an enemy.” – Jessica Dovey
“Returning hate for hate multiplies hate, adding deeper darkness to a night already devoid of stars. Darkness cannot drive out darkness: only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate: only love can do that.” ~ Martin Luther King Jr.
Public Opinion. In the days immediately following the assassination of Osama Bin Laden, the above quotes were mistakenly merged into a single quote attributed to Martin Luther King Jr. — and the quote began spreading around the world as people copied and pasted it to indicate their sentiments regarding the assassination of Osama Bin Laden. The wide use of this quote became a news story in itself and was reported by CBS News, The Atlantic, and many others.
When considering the broad public opinion above, it seems that an assassination of Bin Laden wasn’t what Americans wanted. Not only was it not what Americans wanted, it seems that it was not in America’s best interest, and was an act that was counter productive. It is an action that goes against our ethics, violates international laws, and makes the world less safe.
Measuring Effectiveness and Outcomes. Below are a list of points to consider when evaluating the impact and consequences of Osama Bin Laden’s assassination and the expected outcomes. These points are arranged with those having greatest relevance and significance first.
- Death Penalty for Suicide Bombers? People are of mixed opinions regarding what a just punishment should be for someone who has committed an atrocious crime. Some believe the death penalty is best, while others believe time in prison is a better punishment and deterrent. Certainly among suicide terrorists like Bin Laden, assassination is not effective as a punishment or deterrent (since such people are willing to die for their cause). Prison time or public service would have been a better choice.
- Bin Laden’s Fame Increased. At the time of the assassination, Bin Laden’s fame had diminished. At his natural death, there would have been little if any media attention or public awareness. The assassination brought Bin Laden back into international news and elevated him to the point of being a martyr and hero among his followers. The official Al-Qaeda statement about his martyrdom proclaims, “That the Americans were able to kill Osama is not shameful to us. Where else do men and heroes die except on the battlefield? Every end is predestined. But can the Americans with their media, agents, machinery, soldiers, intelligence and equipment kill what Sheikh Osama lived and fought for? Never, never. … Many more men and heroes like him will come.”
- Videos Show Positive Portrayal of Bin Laden. In an effort to help demonize Bin Laden, videos obtained from the raid were released by the US government to media outlets. The videos attempt to show Bin Laden as backwards and despicable. According to one analyst, these videos (now released to the Muslim world), will foster identification with and compassion for Bin Laden — the opposite reaction we were hoping for. Bin Laden is depicted in the videos as a humble and self-sacrificing pious man with multiple layers of symbolism that will invoke images of the prophet Mohammed.
- Our Policy on Torture Violated. Many forms of torture during interrogation have now been made illegal. It seems that shooting someone in the head should be among the list of things you can’t do to someone who hasn’t had a trial.
- A Respectful Assassination? It’s an odd juxtaposition to have someone assassinated by Navy SEALs in front of their family, and then shortly after conduct a very formal religiously-observant memorial service for the person with a military burial at sea. That’s a kind of romanticized memorial service only reserved for heros. If you respect the person enough to have a first class memorial service for them, why not give them a trial?
- Disregarding Human Rights. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights was established in 1948 as a guideline for civilized and ethical nations to follow. It’s not a menu to pick and choose from, or a list of considerations we want for ourselves, but refuse to extend to others. In assassinating Bin Laden, we violate Article 10 of that declaration which states, “Everyone is entitled in full equality to a fair and public hearing by an independent and impartial tribunal, in the determination of his rights and obligations and of any criminal charge against him.” We also violate Article 11.1 which states, “Everyone charged with a penal offense has the right to be presumed innocent until proved guilty according to law in a public trial at which he has had all the guarantees necessary for his defense.” There are other Articles of the declaration that were violated as a result of the assassination.
- We Are Less Safe. The U.S. State Department acknowledged that we are less safe after Obama’s death. [source] So, the goal of making the world a safer place seems to have not been achieved. In fact, the act has incited calls among Bin Laden supporters for ongoing violent retaliation, “the blood of the mujahid Sheikh Osama bin Laden, may God have mercy on him, is too precious to us and to every Muslim to be wasted in vain. And it will remain, with permission from God Almighty, a curse that haunts the Americans and their collaborators and pursues them outside and inside their country, and that soon, with God’s help, their joy will turn to sorrow and their tears will mix with blood…”
- Intelligence Gathering Compromised. Had there been a capture and trial of Bin Laden, it would have been possible create a greater intelligence awareness about his remaining network and bring other involved parties into scrutiny. We’re told that some information was gathered from among his personal belongings. Yet the intelligence gathered was likely limited, and will quickly become irrelevant given the morphing and transitory characteristics of the terror movement. We’re told the Navy SEALs were able to capture the equivalent of a small library. To the extent that his library contained books available at the local bookstore on religion and other topics, these are less helpful or relevant in uncovering terror networks.
- The American People Deserve a Trial. People feel that Bin Laden doesn’t deserve a trial. Due process isn’t about what a person deserves, it’s a process we follow. It isn’t something extended only to those who deserve it. Even if Bin Laden didn’t deserve a trial, we, the American people, do. The process of having a trial is important because other facts come to light in a trial. Questions get answered, such as… Who provided Bin Laden with a safe house for 6 years? Who was funding Bin Laden? While highly unlikely, we’ve seen in the past where a corrupt member of a government or a government agency will work with criminals and terrorists. Was someone in our government or another government working with Bin Laden? He could have told us. Now he can’t. Why did our government want him dead instead of captured? What were we afraid he might disclose if put on trial? Is it possible that simply killing him and denying him the right to a trial was a coverup of some kind? The likelihood of this is very slim, but it’s one example of many for why trials are important. Conducting a covert assassination rather than a public trial, helps create a frenzy among the conspiracy theorists. It creates confusion rather than clarity.
- World Opinion of Bin Laden Strengthened. Had there been a capture and trial of Bin Laden, testimony and evidence of his wrong doings would have turned Muslim sentiment against him (among the minority of people who are his supporters). Without a formal trial, and stripped of due process, his death was not an execution or sentencing by a court, but an assassination — further elevating his hero status among followers who could believe he was innocent and unjustly killed.
- World opinion of America Hindered. The USA is known as a country where people are innocent until proven guilty in a court of law. Not only does a court determine the extent of someone’s guilt, but also determines an appropriate punishment. Assassinations are viewed by some people as a violent, unethical, and inconsistent with American values. It’s now coming to light that the assassination took place in front of Bin Laden’s young daughter. This isn’t the kind of image we want to have. Now, the US wants to interview the widows. How are we going to make that request? “We killed your husband. Now we have a few questions for you.” In every respect, it seems that the assassination doesn’t serve to create a better image for America.
- Secret Operations are Problematic. The US government claims that we couldn’t trust Pakistan and so the operation needed to be carried out in secret. It’s common for a government or agency to monitor a criminal without capturing the person because the intelligence gained is greater. Was Pakistan engaged in an intelligence gathering operation? That’s something we won’t know now.
- Negative Geopolitical Impact. The assassination is viewed by Pakistan as uncooperative and undiplomatic — further straining US-Pakistan relations. It would understandably cause other countries to be suspicious and untrusting of America.
- Turning an Assassination into a Media Event. Media outlets announced early that the president was going to be making an important public address. This set the stage for making the news story a media event. According to CBS News, “Shortly before midnight, with a cheering crowd gathering outside the White House, the president went on national television.” To anyone watching the president’s announcement, and seeing video of the crowd outside the White House, it seemed a bit odd that so many people would have gathered to celebrate what presumably was a secret operation up to the moment of the president’s announcement. How did so many people learn details of the news seemingly before it was public? When did they find time to make signs? How is it that so many people were available and awake at such a late hour so close to the White House? It’s quite a coincidence that numerous major networks were also present, with lights, and full video crews, outside the white house to video record the event. Why did they think people would spontaneously show up outside the White House? This is not to suggest that the spontaneous crowd was part of a conspiracy to portray public enthusiasm about the assassination. However, it is plausible that some effort was made to stage a pro-Obama event. This kind of thing is done in politics all the time. According to one person who was there, “… one thing that crossed my mind was how many people had huge American flags readily available for the celebration. And who had time to put on face paint?” To commit an act of violence and then turn that into a media event and political statement is something that terrorists do. It’s not something our politicians should be part of. Even if egging on crowds to cheer at the news of someone’s death was politically expedient, it’s probably not the image we want to have as Americans.
- Creating a Climate for Suspicion. It’s in people’s nature to be a bit suspicious and cynical. The way the assassination was conducted creates an environment to feed that. Had Bin Laden been captured, put on trial, and then executed, there would be no question about his guilt and demise. Killing him at night and dumping his body out at sea creates conditions for people to question his death.
Benefits. The numerous points above seem to indicate that the assassination of Bin Laden was a bad idea. However, there are some possible benefits to his death:
- Closure. Because it’s impossible to retaliate or take vengeance upon a suicide bomber, people would understandably be left with a sense of unfulfilled justice. For some who lost family and friends in the 9/11 attacks, the killing of Bin Laden may help bring closure and a sense of satisfaction.
- Establishes New Standard. Some people have suggested that a simple air strike on Bin Laden’s home would be sufficient to kill him. Others have suggested that capturing him and putting him on trial would have been more diplomatic. An assassination is a middle ground between a war and having a trial. It also provides an opportunity for positive identification (something an air strike would not offer).
- Avoidance of War. An unauthorized covert military operation on foreign soil is sufficiently undiplomatic that it could result in a war, yet it is less likely to do so than an air strike like the bombing of Baghdad.
- Money Savings. An air strike on the Bin Laden compound, and possible war with Pakistan could have cost much more than an assassination. For example, the bombing of Baghdad developed into a full-scale war in Iraq costing over 700 trillion dollars. [source]
- Time Savings. Trials can be time consuming, so killing people suspected of having done wrong or suspected of possibly doing something wrong in the future helps avoid time consuming trials. However, some people would argue that the time savings don’t outweigh the unethical nature of assassinations.
- Obama’s Electability. For some voters, Barack Obama is now perceived as a strong leader willing to take risks and pay a high price geopolitically for the cause of retaliation and vengeance. This makes him more electable in 2012. It’s unlikely that the assassination was entirely motivated by political reasons. However, there are political benefits.
Summary. When our actions and behavior toward terrorists are similar in nature to the acts the terrorists have engaged in, then we lose the war on terror.
Further Reading. For further reading on this topic, refer to the article Justice was Done by Nicholas Johnson.
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Document History. This document was started on May 1, and subsequently was edited and added to. It was posted on 6 May 2011 at 5PM. It’s current version was re-posted on 10 May 2010 at 8:55 AM.