The Assassination of Osama bin Laden: American Vengeance As Justice
The targeted assassination of the terrorist leader and mass murderer of civilians, Osama bin Laden, while celebrated almost universally by the American public, is an act deserving close scrutiny. What actually happened? And what are its implications for the exercise of U.S. global power?
The answers are complex. The incident simultaneously ended a ten-year pursuit for his capture and extra-legal execution, ignited worldwide controversy, and once again brought to light America's politics of vengeance, disregard of international law, and indifference to civilian casualties other than its own. Bin Laden's character and record aside, his murder takes its place in a long line of similar illegal actions when viewed in an historical context.
It was the Cold War ideological fanaticism of U.S. policy makers and their proxy warfare against Soviet troops in Afghanistan (1979-89) that first catapulted bin Laden, then a young religious fanatic, and other Mujahedeen volunteers onto the historical stage; it was U.S. and Israeli policies and actions in the Middle East that radicalized him. In August 1998, a decade after he formed the al Qaeda organization, its members blew up U.S. embassies in Tanzania and Kenya, killing two hundred twenty-four people, including twelve Americans and wounding thousands more. Two years later al Qaeda was responsible for the killing of twelve U.S. sailors aboard the USS Cole in Aden, Yemen. Many officials in the U.S. and Europe strongly suspect but have never been able to prove that bin Laden later "masterminded" the mass murders of nearly 3,000 people on U.S. soil -- a number that surpassed the death toll in the Japanese navy's attack of December 1941 on the U.S. fleet at the Pearl Harbor naval base in colonial Hawaii. But the Kuwaiti-born terrorist Khalid Sheikh Muhammad also took credit for the grave crime of the 9/11 attacks. Certainly, people are right to regard bin Laden as al Qaeda's leader responsible in the same way that George W. Bush, who did not "mastermind" the Iraq invasion was the "decider," responsible for America's current wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Nevertheless, not all were pleased with the sordid manner in which his elimination was accomplished.
***On May 1, two American "Black Hawk" helicopters carrying twenty-three Navy SEALS and three "Chinook" helicopters with twenty-four backup soldiers aboard crossed the Afghanistan-Pakistan border undetected by Pakistani radar and without the Pakistani government's consent. A short time later they swooped down in the dark on a large, walled, three-storied compound in a residential area of the garrison town of Abbottabad, Pakistan, less than a mile from Pakistan's leading military academy.
So began the final moments of a carefully plotted, unilateral American operation, kept secret from Pakistani government officials, to gather intelligence on al Qaeda and to kill bin Laden. The CIA had suspected that he was living in Abottabad with some of his wives and children for the past five or more years. President Obama had reviewed the goals of the plan and the means for implementing them. In a revealing sidelight, Pentagon strategists had codenamed bin Laden "Geronimo," and the commandos reported his death as "enemy killed in action." By defaming the heroic Native American leader who had once led armed resistance to the U.S. theft of Apache tribal lands and later died while a war prisoner in U.S. custody, Obama and his generals inadvertently linked two signal episodes of empire building.
During the first stage of the raid -- lasting fifteen to twenty-minutes -- the commandos, wearing helmet-mounted digital cameras to record their actions, forced their entry into the ground floor of the building, and killed three men and one woman while collecting computers, floppy disks, thumb drives, DVDS, computers and cellphones. When they finally came upon bin Laden, he had been out of the loop as an operational commander since late December 2001, when U.S. Army commanders failed to prevent his escape from the mountains of Tora Bora, Afghanistan. Thereafter, according to an unnamed "senior U.S. intelligence official," the self-secluded bin Laden was "substantially in the dark" as to the whereabouts and activities of other leaders in the fragmented al Qaeda organization. In short, CIA officials had been hunting a fugitive who, though he may have had some intelligence value with respect to al Qaeda strategy, had become irrelevant for most peoples in the Arab world.
More important, the commandos encountered an unarmed, unresisting bin Laden, who made no attempt to shield himself from harm or to threaten them. In the circumstances, there was no military necessity to kill him. He could have been taken alive, interrogated, and eventually sent to trial where he might have stated his case and the world could have judged him, as other mass murderers have been judged. But the commandos were psychologically primed and explicitly ordered by the Obama administration to kill rather than capture, so they spurned their opportunity and illegally murdered him on the spot -- Mafia-style with two bullets to the head and chest. Then they flew his body to the aircraft carrier Carl Vinson, from which it was dumped into the North Arabian Sea. The swift disposal of the bin Laden corpse without providing any visual evidence or independent verification of his assassination was Obama's and the Pentagon's attempt to manage the media.
The result was to defy the maxim that justice must be seen to be done -- a point that two of bin Laden's sons also made in a statement that decried "arbitrary killing" as "not a solution to political problems." These were the same sons who rejected their father's use of violence. The truth, unwelcome as it may be to celebratory Americans, is that bin Laden was illegally assassinated for domestic American political purposes, in violation of international law, U.S. military law, and the oath the commandos and their superiors had sworn to uphold the Constitution. Because the rule of law was systematically trampled upon, justice could neither be applied nor served.
Yet that did not prevent the U.S. president from proclaiming untruthfully that there had been "a firefight," that bin Laden's execution was "a testament to the greatness of our country," and that "Justice has been done." Nor did it deter him from saying three days later in a "60 Minutes" interview that any critic of this action "needs to have their heads examined." In his speech Obama lauded the "heroic work of our military" and the Special Operation death squad that carried out his order.
Finally, drawing on two centuries of presidential rhetoric honed in wars of continental and overseas conquest, Obama gave expression to classic American arrogance, stating, "America can do whatever we set our mind to. That is the story of our history, whether it is the pursuit of prosperity for our people, or the struggle for equality for all our citizens, our commitment to stand up for our values abroad, and our sacrifices to make the world a safer place" [italics added]. In the president's lexicon vengeance is justice and citizens should take pride in any action sanctioned by the U.S. government in the fight against foreign enemies.
Obama appealed to key elements of the American credo: He told the nation that the intentions and purposes of their leaders were virtuous; he implied that the U.S. had a mission to lead the world and combat evil; and he asserted that by intervening militarily in foreign countries and eliminating arch criminals such as bin Laden peace could be restored. His message resonated widely at home, causing his approval ratings in opinion polls to rise. He had shown the American people that in pursuit of his benevolent objectives he, like George W. Bush whom American voters had rewarded with a second term in office in 2004, would ignore the constitution and the laws of war that proscribe the killing of unresisting, unarmed captives.
With the illegal tactic of targeted assassination the Democratic president effectively swept into the 2012 election campaign. On college campuses across the country students born in the era of the "GWOT" and in some sense a product of that era cheered "USA, USA." Liberals, editorial writers, and conservative pundits shared in the celebration, justified the killing, and invested it with an almost historic significance. It was indeed "heroic theater." Overnight the SEALS and other Special Operations forces became American heroes, immune from criticism. New York Times book reviewer Michiko Kakutani styled them "America's Jedi knights: the elite of the elite, an all-star team. . . given mission-impossible assignments in the most dangerous parts of the planet. . . . ABC [News] compared them with Superman, and Newsweek described them as 'the coolest guys in the world,' working 'anonymously and without public recognition.'" This is how we write about Americans trained to ignore international law in an age in which the Obama administration openly practices the sensory deprivation mode of mind-altering-torture, and the president personally approves hit lists of enemies in Muslim and African countries to be assassinated by Special Operations troops and robotic drones, which kill, annually, hundreds of innocent Pakistani civilians.
Politically, the reprisal execution of bin Laden sent a policy message to all governments, particularly those in the Middle East, Africa, and Asia: We have taken vengeance on a mass murderer of Americans and henceforth will rely increasingly on our highly trained death squads and our robotic drones to track down and kill all those whom I, as president, designate as enemies, whether they be foreigners or fellow citizens never charged with a crime, such as Anwar al-Awlaki in Yemen; I will do so no matter the cost to others, for "our" safety depends on my policy of targeted assassination.
Some sixty years ago, when the World War II generation of American leaders emerged from a victorious war against the Axis aggressor nations, they placed the worst Axis war criminals on trial and granted them due process of law rather than summarily executing them, though they also insisted on American impunity from prosecution for war crimes. Afterward they got the United Nations to adopt the Nuremberg principles.
Today American double standards seem more glaring. The United States is mired in two enormously costly wars of aggression -- one in Iraq, where opposition from the Shi'a majority forced it to draw down, leaving behind bases, mercenaries, and some 40,000 troops, together with twice that number of mercenaries; the other in Afghanistan, where U.S. policy first brought the Taliban to power, then engineered a regime change and the installation of a corrupt puppet government. Today the American and NATO presence is, with good cause, deeply hated and the growing strength of Taliban nationalists is indicated by their recent offensive in Kandahar. Successive Bush and Obama administrations have defined themselves by rejecting the Nuremberg principles in all but name, as the summary execution of bin Laden so stunningly highlighted.
Noam Chomsky also had in mind the Nuremberg principles when he wrote: "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. Uncontroversially, his crimes vastly exceed bin Laden's, and he is not a 'suspect' but uncontroversially the 'decider' who gave the orders to commit the 'supreme international crime differing only from other war crimes in that it contains within itself the accumulated evil of the whole' (quoting the Nuremberg Tribunal) for which Nazi criminals were hanged: the hundreds of thousands of deaths, millions of refugees, destruction of much of the country, the bitter sectarian conflict that has now spread to the rest of the region."
Few have paused to consider that the general thrust of the Obama administration has been to aggrandize more and more executive power and to make a mockery of the Constitution and international criminal law. It does this in myriad ways, such as: practicing with impunity the targeted assassination of enemies, having the CIA and Pentagon teach police and military officers throughout Latin America and Asia the torture technique of sensory deprivation of detainees, and waging illegal wars in Libya in violation of the Geneva conventions, which set limits on targeting a country's civilian infrastructure and make it a crime to disrupt normal civilian life in order to effect regime change.  Nor do most Americans appreciate that with the usual bipartisan Congressional support the Obama administration is (as Glenn Greenwald noted) not only ignoring the War Powers Act but also extending the Patriot Act for a second time with little public debate, while expanding the scope of "National Security Letters," and erecting "an ever-increasing wall of secrecy around its own actions."
***Bin Laden's assassination was indeed a unilateral U.S. attack, but more time will have to pass before all the relevant details can be independently verified and a more truthful account established. What is certain at this moment is that upon coming into office Obama stepped up deadly drone attacks and that those attacks have killed nearly 1,500 Pakistani men, women, and children; that the rank and file of the Pakistani army regard the U.S. as "a most untrustworthy ally" -- indeed, no friend at all, and that the Pakistanis were deeply angered after several earlier incidents of American criminal conduct on their territory. In one, an armed CIA operative, Raymond A. Davis, cold bloodedly murdered two Pakistanis who had been following him in the streets of Lahore. Eventually the Pakistan government caved to American pressure and released Davis into U.S. custody. Later Pakistan demanded that "about 335 American personnel -- C.I.A. officers and contractors and Special Operations forces" -- leave the country.
On learning of this further American violation of their sovereignty as an independent state, both the Pakistani government and ordinary Pakistanis angrily condemned the illegal U.S. intrusion. Pakistan with a population of 176.2 million has a large (15.4 percent) Pashtun ethnic minority living in the northwestern frontier provinces, adjacent to Afghanistan, where they predominate. Many Pakistanis may have regarded al Qaeda as an enemy, lacked sympathy for bin Laden, and been shocked to learn that he had been hiding out under the very noses of their government officials, but all they could do initially was gather in central Abbottabad, burn the American flag, and shout "terrorist, terrorist, USA terrorist."
When Gallup surveyed Pakistani opinion eight days after the assassination, nearly two-thirds (64 percent) of all Pakistanis disapproved of the U.S. military action and thought bin Laden "should have been taken alive" or at least captured rather than killed. About a week later in northwest Pakistan, militants who accuse the Islamabad government and its security forces of "being puppets in . . . an American war against Muslims" launched a series of three retaliatory attacks for bin Laden's killing, setting off suicide bombs that took the lives of eighty Pakistanis and injured more than a hundred-forty others; setting off bombs near oil trucks headed for U.S. forces in Afghanistan; and "storming [the] important [Mehran] naval base in the southern port city of Karachi." Meanwhile, Pakistan's parliament, meeting in Islamabad, passed a joint resolution demanding an immediate end to U.S. drone attacks and consideration by the civilian government of anti-U.S. sanctions. Pakistan's military, meanwhile is paying the price for having once allowed U.S. special forces to deploy secretly and engage in operations within the country's tribal areas. But it does not want to be, and with China's strategic support, need not be, an American client state. Increasingly, its citizens are coming to realize that America's war on terror is not their war and they want out of it. Yet Obama's response to Pakistani anger and humiliation has been to escalate drone strikes within Pakistan.
***Multiple, decade-long, hugely expensive U.S. wars of aggression and political defeats throughout North Africa, Central Asia, and the greater Middle East have shaped the environment within which Osama bin Laden's summary execution occurred. The U.S. fights these endless wars in distant lands at the whim of the president and his political generals. Although unable to achieve victory, it has thus far shown a willingness to mount further wars of choice without end. But can it put out the flames that have been spreading through the Middle East and North Africa or curb Israel's theft of militarily occupied Palestinian land? In Libya, where two months ago the U.S. and NATO intervened militarily on the side of anti-Qaddafi insurgents centered in Benghazi, the fourth-month old civil war quickly stalemated. Innocent Libyan civilians on both sides are being killed by the NATO bombing campaign and by forces loyal to Qaddafi who are trying to put down the armed resistance. While the BRIC, German, and South Africa nations oppose the NATO-U.S. air campaign, as does Turkey, which has been seeking a diplomatic solution, they failed to vote against Security Council Resolution 1973, which provided cover for NATO, abstaining instead. NATO leaders persist in widening their bombing campaign in violation of the UN resolution. Intent on defeating Qaddafi's regime, the humanitarian hawks have claimed the high ground, denying Qaddafi's moral and political "legitimacy" and vehemently rejecting his offer of a truce in return for an immediate NATO ceasefire. Whatever other reasons they have for keeping the war going, there is no denying that Qaddafi's peace proposal fails to include any acknowledgement of the insurgents' counter-offer that a truce include the right of Libyan citizens to peaceably protest. As the bombing campaign continues destroying government buildings in Tripoli, pressure builds in London and Paris for targeting dual-use infrastructure throughout Libya.
Elsewhere within the U.S.-led Middle East tyranny, in Egypt, Jordan, Bahrain, and Yemen, popular democratic, and largely secular uprisings are continuing, undermining U.S.-supported dictatorships and absolute monarchies. Here too the Obama administration is on the defensive, working behind the scenes to shore up army leaders in Egypt, and monarchs in Yemen, Bahrain, and the United Arab Emirates whom it needs to ensure continued control of Middle East oil supplies.
The American desire to assassinate rather than capture an unarmed, unresisting war criminal was rooted in a psychology of vengeance that is widely shared by Washington officials and ultimately at odds with principles of legal justice. After the event, the story had to be told in a way that would keep the American people complacent about their leaders' violation of international law and reliance on brute force. So officials and pundits talked up a non-existent "firefight" and presented the American assassins as heroes, deserving the highest military honors for having successfully carried out a "surgical," "precision" reprisal execution. Bush, Cheney, Rumsfeld and other unindicted war criminal suspects all came forward to claim that the torture of high-value detainees in secret U.S. "black-site" prisons led to information about bin Laden's couriers which in turn led to bin Laden. In this way, the forty-minute episode became the occasion for neo-conservatives and their allies in the mainstream media to advance pro-torture arguments and defend the existence of the Guantanamo torture-experimentation prison that Obama had once solemnly vowed to eliminate but lacks the leadership to bring about.
***Although we have seen why it was necessary to concoct for American domestic consumption a triumphalist myth about bin Laden's murder, other questions remain to be explored:
What impact will this incident have on U.S. relations with the Muslim world during the fourth year of Obama's presidency? Will it, for example, hasten a real U.S. military withdrawal from Afghanistan or from Iraq, where they serve no purpose, are deeply hated, and not needed? Will it lead to further drone attacks within Pakistan, Libya, and Yemen?
So far, assassination without due process of law seems to have strengthened the Washington consensus that might is right and that the U.S. must never abandon its overseas bases or withdraw its forces and private mercenaries from foreign lands. A precedent has been set for further assassinations not only of those already on the Obama hit list, but of Libya's Col. Muammar Qaddafi. As the White House spokesman said, the president "reserves the right" to launch comparable attacks into Pakistan or anywhere else in the future.
A final question looms largest of all. If we continue listening to Obama, looking forward rather than backward into history and the context of our actions, ignoring the criminal behavior of incumbent or out-of-office imperial presidents, generals, admirals, and appointed senior officials, are we not dooming ourselves to fight perpetual wars in distant lands while suffering at home continued economic, social, and cultural degradation?
1. Declan Walsh, "Osama bin Laden's Guns Found 'Only After' US Navy Seals killed him," Guardian UK, posted May 17, 2011.
2. Eric Schmitt, Thom Shanker, David E. Sanger, "U.S. Braced for Fights With Pakistanis in Bin Laden Raid," New York Times, May 9, 2011.
3. Ron Suskind, The One Percent Doctrine: Deep Inside America's Pursuit of Its Enemies Since 9/11 (Simon & Schuster, 2006), pp. 73-75, 96-97; William Saletan, "Kill the Men, Take the Thumb Drive: Was the Bin Laden raid a manhunt or an intelligence grab?" May 11, 2001; CNN Wire Staff, "Pakistan's parliament condemns U.S. raid, threaten sanctions," May 14, 2011.
4. Greg Miller, Karen DeYoung, "Bin Laden's preoccupation with U.S. said to be source of friction with followers," Washington Post, May 11, 2011.
5. Yochi Dreazen, Aamer Madhani and Marc Ambinder, "The Goal Was Never to Capture bin Laden," The Atlantic, May 2011, p. 2 of 4.
6. "RSIS Commentary 77/2011 Osama's Burial: How It Should Have Been by Muhammad Haniff Hassan and Zulkifli Mohamed Sultan," May 12, 2011; Scott Shane, "Bin Laden Sons Say U.S. Violated International Law," New York Times, May 10, 2011. Their statement condemned "the president of the United States for ordering the execution of unarmed men and women" and "asked for a United Nations investigation of the circumstances of their father's death."
7. Majorie Cohn, "The Targeted Assassination of Osama Bin Laden," posted at ZNet, May 10, 2011.
8. "Obama's Remarks on Bin Laden's Killing," New York Times, posted May 2, 2011.
9. Andrew J. Bacevich addresses the "credo" in Washington Rules: America's Path To Permanent War (Metropolitan Books, 2010), pp. 11-15, 109-45.
10. Tom Engelhardt introduction to William Astore, "Wars Don't Make Heroes," posted May 12, 2011, at TomDispatch.
11. Michiko Kakutani, "Muscle Memory: The Training of Navy Seals," New York Times, May 8, 2011.
12. Noam Chomsky, "My Reaction to Osama bin Laden's Death," May 6, 2011, posted at Guernica Magazine. Chomsky later expanded on his views of the assassination in this important article: "There is Much More to Say," posted May 20, 2011, on ZNet. Here he noted that "either Bush and associates are guilty of the 'supreme international crime' including all the evils that follow, crimes that go vastly beyond anything attributed to bin Laden; or else we declare that the Nuremberg proceedings were a farce and that the allies were guilty of judicial murder. Again, that is entirely independent of the question of the guilt of those charged: established by the Nuremberg Tribunal in the case of the Nazi criminals, plausibly surmised from the outset in the case of bin Laden."
13. Alfred W. McCoy, A Question of Torture: CIA Interrogation, From the Cold War to the War on Terror (Metropolitan Books, 2006).
14. FAIR, "Libya and the Law: Media Show Slight Interest in War Powers, Geneva," posted May 23, 2011.
15. Glenn Greenwald, "The always-expanding bipartisan Surveillance State," posted May 20, 2011, at Salon.com.
16. Yochi Dreazen, Aamer Madhani and Marc Ambinder, "The Goal Was Never to Capture bin Laden," The Atlantic, May 2011, p. 3 of 4.
17. Jane Perlez, "Pakistan Army Chief Balks at U.S. Demands to Cooperate," New York Times, posted May 12, 2011.
18. Jane Perlez and Ismail Khan, "Pakistan Tells U.S. It Must Sharply Cut its C.I.A. Activities," New York Times, April 11, 2011.
19. BBC News, South Asia, "Al-Qaeda 'confirms Bin Laden's death,'" posted May 6, 2011.
20. Saul Relative, "Poll: Pakistanis Don't Think Osama Bin Laden Should Have Been Killed," May 21, 2011, posted at yahoo.com; Julie Ray and Rajesh Srinivasan, "Pakistanis Criticize U.S. Action That Killed Osama Bin Laden," Gallup, May 18, 2011.
21. Haq Nawaz Khan and Karin Brulliard, "2 suicide bombers kill 80 outside Pakistan paramilitary training center," Washington Post, May 13, 2011.
22. Salman Masood, "Militants Attack Pakistani Naval Base in Karachi," New York Times, May 22, 2011. Dilip Hiro, "Playing the China Car: Has the Obama Administration miscalculated in Pakistan?" posted May 24, 2011, at TomDispatch.
23. Jason Ditz, "Pakistan Military: No Embedded US Troops in Northwest," posted May 22, 2011, at antiwar.com.
24. Andy Worthington, "The Unjustifiable Defense of Torture and Guantanamo," posted May 6, 2010, at CommonDreams.org.
25. Jason Ditz, "White House Sees Bin Laden Killing as Precedent," posted May 4, 2011, at antiwar.com.
Herbert Bix, author of Hirohito and the Making of Modern Japan, which won the Pulitzer Prize, teaches at Binghamton University and writes on problems of war and empire.