Thursday, May 05, 2011

Should The Photos Be Released; And Was Bin Laden Executed?

In his usual “inimitable, truthful humor” Jon Stewart “makes the case” for the killing of bin Laden: “I suppose I should be expressing some ambivalence about the killing of another human being. And yet …. No.”

Stewart also makes an interesting case for release of the death photos, one on which reasonable people disagree. See point-counterpoint between Stewart and Rachel, below. There is a default position. Most of us have no interest in viewing the photos, just as we would not be interested in viewing the gruesome photos of JFK’s head shot (as seen in another blog) to make a, what — because I can point? Eventually, I believe the photos will see the light of day, much to the chagrin of the conspiracists and America-haters. As one former DOJ official writes, there is a strong FOIA case to be made for their release.

But at least, as Rachel notes, we will not be in the business of trotting out gruesome photos of dead terrorists as if they’re some kind of trophy. As the President said, “that’s not what we’re about.” However, I see no good reason for the Administration to hold back on releasing video of the burial at sea, to show the Arab world that the body was accorded the proper Islamic burial, not for the sake of the genocidal murderer, but out of respect for their religion.

Finally, there has been an obsessive media fixation with the changing narrative of the Navy SEALS commando raid on bin Laden’s “mansion.” Here are the issues:

1. Did bin Laden resist or was he executed?

On the first question, the official (revised) account states bin Laden was unarmed but resisted, and was reaching for a gun when he was shot and killed. As Larry-O noted on his show, we all know that is the default ‘cover story’ when an unarmed individual is shot in suspicious circumstances. Bin Laden’s daughter claimed her father was captured and then executed. One has to take this account with a grain of salt. Why should we believe her any more than we would believe the official account? What makes the daughter of a mass murderer who was not coerced into living with him, a credible witness?

Unless someone else can confirm her version of events, I should take it as false. For a very simple reason. Very little in this ‘fog of war’ scenario has been said of the fact there were 23 children and nine women in the compound who were unharmed in the raid and turned over to Pakistani authorities. For those who would coddle the terrorist with charges of “imperialist aggression” and other such nonsense, that’s about as good as it gets in protecting civilian lives — we all know the euphemism, ‘collateral damage’— in this type of military operation. It is indeed ironic that the President is criticized for having chosen the riskier option — which saved the lives of women and children — rather than the easier drone attack that would have demolished the building and killed everyone inside it.

Apart from bin Laden, one woman was killed in crossfire, his son was killed coming down the stairs from the floor above. In the upstairs quarters they found bin Laden unarmed, wearing pajamas. His wife tried to shield him and was shot in the leg and then bin Laden was shot and killed. If the wife resisted, it is plausible to assume that bin Laden would have as well, rather than give himself up.

That is the latest ‘official’ account, and there is no reason, so far as I can tell, to disbelieve it. Some pictures have emerged of three bodies found on the site, but their presence does not contradict the official account there was a firefight and at least three people were shot and killed. The women who were left unharmed can certainly fill in the details of how everything went down. So far, we have learned that the wife identified bin Laden’s body and his daughter claimed he was captured and executed. In my personal opinion, based on these sketchy details, I believe she is lying. Though he was a privileged millionaire and a coward who hid behind women — as terrorists so often do, using women and children as human shields — everything we know of bin Laden says he is someone who would resist arrest with deadly force, given the slightest opportunity. There were handguns and AK-47s found in the room he was killed. It would have been easier to claim bin Laden was armed than to invite the “execution” charges from the haters and bin Laden sympathizers.

2. If bin Laden was executed, was it legal?

On this issue, there is no question but that it was legal, by the conventions of international law and a nation’s right to self-defense affirmed by Article 51 of the UN Charter and reaffirmed in subsequent post-9/11 resolutions:

Article 51
Nothing in the present Charter shall impair the inherent right of individual or collective self-defense if an armed attack occurs against a Member of the United Nations, until the Security Council has taken measures necessary to maintain international peace and security...

The application of the right to combat terrorism was further reinforced by international practice following the 9/11 terror attacks on the United States. Two Security Council resolutions issued pursuant to Chapter VII of the UN Charter reflect this consensus:

Security Council Resolutions 1368 (2001)
Recogniz[es] the inherent right of individual or collective self-defense in accordance with the Charter;
. . .
Expresses its readiness to take all necessary steps to respond to the terrorist attacks of 11 September 2001, and to combat all forms of terrorism, in accordance with its responsibilities under the Charter of the United Nations.

Security Council Resolution 1373 (2001)

Reaffirming further that such acts, like any act of international terrorism, constitute a threat to international peace and security,

Reaffirming the inherent right of individual or collective self-defense as recognized by the Charter of the United Nations as reiterated in resolution 1368 (2001),

Reaffirming the need to combat by all means, in accordance with the Charter of the United Nations, threats to international peace and security caused by terrorist acts . . .

Attorney General Eric Holder made the legal argument at a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing yesterday:
The U.S. raid on bin Laden's compound was lawful “as an act of national self-defense. [Bin Laden] "was the head of al Qaeda, an organization that had conducted the attacks of September the 11th. It's lawful to target an enemy commander in the field.”
Howard Fineman, Editorial Director of the Huffington Post and a straight-shooting gumshoe journalist, was among the first to note matter-of-factly that there was no question but that the rules of engagement called for the killing of bin Laden. This should come as no surprise to anyone, as video of candidate Obama’s debate with John McCain in 2008 was widely circulated. Then-candidate Obama said, If there was actionable intelligence of the mass murderer’s whereabouts he would take immediate action, not to capture, but to kill Osama bin Laden. There was never any ambiguity or doubt as to the legality of such an action in the words of our Constitutional Law professor President.

Hair-splitting legal experts, as is their wont, say the question of legality comes down to bin Laden’s reaction as the Navy Seals entered the room. Even the human rights attorney Geoffrey Robertson, who defended Julian Assange of WikiLeaks, no friend of the United States, said if members of the SEALS team “reasonably (believed there was) a risk to themselves, then the killing was justified.” Conspiracists and America-haters will no doubt claim bin Laden tried to surrender. There is nothing in the terrorist’s history nor in the accounts, including the presence of weapons in the room, that would justify believing his daughter’s charge of capture and execution.

And finally:

3. Why should we care how this genocidal murderer was killed?

Most Americans could care less. Their instincts are right. This notion that a dead bin Laden will spark a great upsurge in Al Qaeda recruitment, hero worship, and radicalization in the Arab world is simply not borne out by historical facts. Nor is the wishful thinking in some quarters that bin Laden’s killing will spark an anti-American “backlash” in the Arab Spring movement. Conversely, a captured bin Laden, abusing our laws with his acolytes to become a living legend by claiming to be a “political prisoner” of American “imperialism” etc., would be a far greater boost to Al Qaeda than the dead body of the soon to be forgotten Osama bin Laden, at the bottom of the Arabian Sea.

This is a rather typical critique from the Left about the execution vs. capture question:
[W]ould the decision to kill rather than capture him have been in the best interests of the U.S. and the international fight against terrorism?

I would argue that it would not have been — that, in fact, the reverse would hold true. Osama bin Laden is widely seen to have become a figurehead without direct operational command of the organization he founded. His importance, at this point in time, was largely symbolic. He served as an inspiration for extremists around the globe. Had he a choice in the matter, I have no doubt that he would have wanted nothing more than to die in a hail of gunfire by foreign troops in a predominantly Muslim country, a martyr to his cause, rather than rot away in a military prison, aging poorly and providing living proof that the world's most prominent terrorist — a figure who had been elevated to an existential threat — was ultimately impotent in the face of the world's greatest super-power. 
By his own account, Joshua Holland gives weight and credence to the official version of how things went down. If he has “no doubt that [bin Laden] would have wanted nothing more than to die in a hail of gunfire by foreign troops in a predominantly Muslim country, a martyr to his cause,” then, it seems, Osama got his wish.

As for the suggestion that Bin Laden would simply “rot away in a military prison, aging poorly and providing living proof that the world's most prominent terrorist — a figure who had been elevated to an existential threat — was ultimately impotent in the face of the world's greatest super-power,” Holland’s opinion makes many unsubstantiated assumptions. One could easily argue the contrary with a fair degree of certitude: There is little doubt that an inprisoned bin Laden would be fodder for an entire cottage industry of anti-American conspiracists who would elevate him to the legendary status of America's political prisoner, producing endless manifestos from his jail cell, a la Adolf Hitler (Mein Kampf), Fidel Castro (History Will Absolve Me) or, even more disturbingly, inviting comparisons with Dr. Martin Luther King and Nelson Mandela, both of whom wrote famous statements of their moral struggle for freedom and self-determination from prison cells.

No. Osama bin Laden deserved no such elevated status. Nor did he deserve to live a single day beyond September 11, 2001 when he claimed his first innocent victims on that tragic day. There is much to compare bin Laden to Hitler, except for the sheer magnitude of Hitler’s genocide. Before there was knowledge of Hitler’s extermination of European Jews, his assassination was actively pursued, within and without Germany. In a perverse way, Osama bin Laden was not deserving of the ceremony and dignity of a Nuremberg-style trial at the War Crimes Tribunal in the Hague. He was an international terrorist, criminal, gangster, and mass murderer who had lived on borrowed time since September 11, 2001.

He may have aspired to martyrdom, to lead a movement of millions. Instead, like the most heinous and murderous of crime families, his followers number in the hundreds, perhaps a few thousand, at most. Osama bin Laden deserved nothing more than summary execution — in the act of resisting capture.

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