Readings: The Killing of Osama Bin Laden

Last week I threw out my files on Osama Bin Laden’s death—which I am more prone to call a murder or an assassination—because new and perhaps bigger questions keep leaping up at us and I have to make room in both my head and in my files and desk space for new problems.

But Nicholas Schmidle’s “Getting Bin Laden,” in the New Yorker, a play-by-play reconstruction of the killing from take-off, to landing and shooting, and return, based not on interviews with the Navy SEALS themselves but with other government officials who spoke to them and then to the author, is constructed, in a non-analytical way, so as to give the impression that now we know exactly what happened, without dealing with the moral ambiguities at stake.

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Actually there is little in the article—except for the name of the participating dog, Cairo, whom President Obama made a point of meeting upon their return, and Vice President Joe Biden’s cryptic remark to the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff that “We should all go to Mass tonight”—that the careful reader did not already know.

Nevertheless the moment of kill itself is so cold-blooded that it is hard to see how a co-called “pro-life” movement, or church that opposes capital punishment, or a legal profession that says we are a government of laws can stomach it.

Osama, as he sees the SEAL coming up, ducks into his room at the top of the stairs. The SEAL breaks into the room and two wives are in front of Osama. He shoots one in the leg, lest she be wearing an explosive jacket. She’s not. A second SEAL enters, his gun pointed at the unarmed Osama’s chest. “There was never any question of detaining or capturing him,” the informant tells the author. They wanted a corpse. Schmidle, in one sentence, portrays this SEAL as the avenging angel, sent nine years after 9/11 to settle the score. A bullet to the chest, another to the head above the left eye. On his radio to the White House, the executioner reports, “For God and country...enemy killed in action.” Did he imagine that this is what God wanted?

In Sunday’s New York Times Maureen Dowd notices that the New Yorker article appears in the week after President Obama, his weakness revealed as a battler with Congress, needs an image boost. The boost is supplied by an article fed to a pliant reporter that portrays him as a tough decision maker and cool commander. She reports that the same film team who made “The Hurt Locker”—the grim Oscar-winning film about a soldier who disarms bombs in Iraq and is about to explode himself as a victim of the war—is making a film about the Osama killing which, the administration hopes, will “reflect the president’s cool, gutsy decision making against shaky odds,” to be released in October 2012.

I cannot imagine how the theme of “The Hurt Locker” can be reconciled with this event. But I’ll see it.

With all this in mid, we read the story of the “Deadliest Day Of Afghan War for U.S. Forces” where what was most likely a Taliban rocket shot down a helicopter full of 30 Americans, 22 of whom were Navy SEALS, colleagues of those who killed Osama, plus 8 Afghans, leaving 38 dead. It is hard to not see this as a quid-pro-quo: SEALS kill Osama to avenge 9/11, Taliban kill 22 SEALS as pay-back, part of the circle of revenge that, if allowed to continue in this mode, will poison or kill us all.

Meanwhile it is risky to apply the symbolism of events to a president’s ups and downs. In today’s Washington Post the plunge of this helicopter was applied to the president himself.

Raymond A. Schroth, S.J.

 

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6 years 2 months ago
It also just struck me that I wonder if the author considers justice to have been served for the victims of the Lockerbee Scotland bombing.  That terrorist was tried, and then tricked his way out of prison on the basis of his supposed imminent death and with the support of many so-called human rights groups.  Of course he was pictured last week, some years out from his release, cheering on a despotic leader accused of human rights atrocities against his own people.  Is that the kind of pacifist justice he thinks we should have?
Eugene Palumbo
6 years 2 months ago
To me, Bill Collier makes a very convincing case.  He says, among other things, that “the Nuremberg trials are now considered exemplars of the triumph of justice over inflamed passions and mob rule.”  Jeff says the trials were “subjected to much criticism.”  Even if there were valid criticisms, that takes nothing away from the case made by Collier; it simply means that this time around – in the case of a trial for Bin Laden – it would have been necessary to correct any flaws in the Nuremberg model.
 
I agree again with Collier when he says, “As messy and imperfect as the American justice system can be at times, it remains one of the hallmarks of our democracy. If the Allied nations could provide fair trials at Nuremberg to some of Hitler's top henchmen - people responsible for the murders of millions - then we or an international tribunal could have provided OBL with his day in court. . . .  Some may have rejoiced in OBL's summary demise, but IMO the wrong signal about American justice went out to much of the rest of the world.”
Maria Leonard
6 years 2 months ago
''It is hard to not see this as a quid-pro-quo: SEALS kill Osama to avenge 9/11, Taliban kill 22 SEALS as pay-back, part of the circle of revenge that, if allowed to continue in this mode, will poison or kill us all.''  It continues...this evening's news announced that the person who was responsible for the rocket that killed the 22 SEALS was killed last night.  When will it end?
Crystal Watson
6 years 2 months ago
I'm with Fr. Schroth.   I don't think assassination is anything to ever  be proud of.  It's odd that some of the comments by those I think of as conservative  are justifying a kind of moral relativism - that murder's ok as long as you're murdering the right person.

BTW, I recently saw a 2000 movie about the Nuremberg trials, which I thought was really good.  If anyone's interested, I posted about it here  ....  http://povcrystal.blogspot.com/2010/05/tree-fell-in-forest.html  ... along with a bit of  the opening speech given by Robert Jackson, the  Supreme Court Justice who Truman chose to be the main US prosecuter at the trials.
Stanley Kopacz
6 years 2 months ago
I suppose bin Laden served his purpose already.  It was useful to have him a loose bogeyman as an additional excuse for the two useless adventurous wars begun by the republicans and continued by our present president who doesn't seem to stand for anything.  This could have been done early on but would not have served the grande plan by losing the star of Hate Week.
Bill Collier
6 years 2 months ago
Jeff-

Respectfully, I don't buy what you are selling. :)

The Nurenmberg Nazi defendants got their days in court despite what may have been less than perfect justice at times. Did "many" of the Allied nations pursue the atrocities that the Nazis were accused of? I don't think so. Stalin was a mass murderer, too, I'll give you that, but there is a huge qualititative difference between the Japanese internment (a very great blot on American democracy, IMO) and the systematic elimination by murder of millions of Jews, Gypsies, disabled individuals, and others who did not fit the Nazis' twisted Aryan ideal. Yet still, to their credit, the Allies provided the Nazi defendants with trials that guaranteed many of the rights and presumptions we take for granted in the American system of justice, rights and presumptions that were heightened in importance, and apparent for the whole world to see, because the Nazis never provided such rights and presumptions to their victims.  

I also have to disagree with you that "vengeance," "feelings," and "emotional moral reactions" should play a part in the levying of justice. In fact, our system of justice is intentionally constructed to preclude these factors in the determination of guilt or innocence. Judges and juries are asked to impartially weigh the facts, and only the facts, in the context of the various legal elements of a crime. Are judges and juries always impartial? No, but I work in the law enforcement field, and I am constantly impressed by how seriously judges and juries perform their absolutely essential roles in our system of justice. Shooting Osama bin Laden, assuming he was unarmed and non-threatening at the moment of his apprehension, was, in a larger sense, a statement that we don't trust our legal system to prosecute him, or that we underestimate its capability to do so. I strongly disgree with such a presumption. The system might have groaned and creaked under the weight of OBL's prosecution, but I have little doubt that justice under the law would have prevailed. The perception of our justice system as a whole as fair and unbiased is much more important, IMO, than any one case, including one involving OBL, and it's that justice system that took a hit when a (presumably) unarmed and unresisting man was shot down in that compound in Pakistan.  
PJ Johnston
6 years 2 months ago
I had already read the New Yorker piece when I saw this post, and I have to admit that I had similar reactions to Raymond Schroth to the parts of the reporting which referenced God and the Church, although I am perhaps somewhat less charitable in my reactions.  I take the invocation of God's name to bless an assassination as an act of apostasy against the Christian faith and Biden's suggestion that the political leaders involved in the assassination (who would at the very least be guilty of material cooperation in the sin of murder) as shockingly sacrilegious.  I have been wounded by the lack of moral courage in the Church to preach the Gospel on this matter, and I am reassured that someone has at least made some tentative steps towards doing so.  Thank you very much for this piece.
Eugene Palumbo
6 years 2 months ago
David Smith:
You cited this from Bill Collier’s post:  ''Shooting Osama bin Laden, assuming he was unarmed and non-threatening at the moment of his apprehension, was, in a larger sense, a statement that we don't trust our legal system to prosecute him, or that we underestimate its capability to do so.''
Then you offered you own comment:  “Nonsense, Bill.”
That angers me.  If, among the contributors to this blog, there is anyone whose comments cannot be described as “nonsense,” it’s Bill Collier.  You could have said, “I very strongly disagree, for these reasons . . .”  or “I’m not at all persuaded, for the following reasons . . .”  
No matter how strongly he might disagree with a comment of yours, I’m sure that Bill Collier would not label it “nonsense.”  I think you owe him similar courtesy.
I also think you owe him an apology.
And I ask Tim Reidy:  should blog commenters be allowed to get away with this kind of thing?  Are you going to let them have total impunity?
Bill Collier
6 years 2 months ago
Fr. Schroth-

Assuming Schmidle's account is correct that OBL offered no resistance, then I couldn't agree with you more. As messy and imperfect as the American justice sysytem can be at times, it remains one of the hallmarks of our democracy. If the Allied nations could provide fair trials at Nuremberg to some of Hitler's top henchmen-people responsible for the murders of millions-then we or an international tribunal could have provided OBL with his day in court. The Nuremberg trials are now considered exemplars of the triumph of justice over inflamed passions and mob rule. I have no doubt that the evidence against OBL would have been overwhelming and that he would have been convicted, but providing a fair trial is not a matter of just going through the motions. It's an affirmation that extralegal redress for wrongs is antithetical to a system of fair and unbiased justice, which should whenever possible be levied on the basis of applicable law. Some may have rejoiced in OBL's summary demise, but IMO the wrong signal about American justice went out to much of the rest of the world.    
6 years 2 months ago
I wonder if the author realizes that the Nuremberg trials, at their time, were subject to much criticism, including about their legitimacy.  These critics included prominent jurists like Harlan Fiske Stone, then Chief Justice of the US Supreme Court, and that rabble-rouser William O. Douglas, then associate justice.  Many objected to the procedural disadvantages that the defendants faced, including the choice of judges, the rules of evdience, and the quality of the evidence.

With respect to Bin Laden, the world is a morally ambiguous place.  I'll leave to God to judge the actors in this affair.  I am confident in believing that the peaceloving peoples of the world are better off with Bin Laden at the bottom of an ocean rather than writing jeremiads from prison and turning a court into a political statement.  I laud the President's decision and actions.  I lament the fact that we live in an imperfect, violent world.
Dale Rodrigue
6 years 2 months ago
Hmm, I am agreeing w/ Jeff and vice versa!

Bin Laden got what he deserved, and Christ predicted it!

What, Jesus predicted it?
Yes, He did.
How do you know?
Christ said in the garden of Olives: Those who live by the sword, die by the sword.

Bin Laden ended up the way he lived life.  He reaped what he sowed. 

Sorry padre doesn't understand that as he sits back in his recliner in his safe rectory and pontificates on how badly everyone else is behaving in order to preserve his freedom. 
John Barbieri
6 years 2 months ago
I, for one, agree with Jeff Landry and Dale Rodrigue.
None of us were there!
This article takes another article by a journalist who wasn't there interviewing other people who weren't there as an accurate description of what actually happened.
And all of this viewed in retrospect! 
Osama bin Laden is gone.
The world is a safer place without him. 
6 years 2 months ago
I should have noted that one of the major criticisms of the Nuremberg trials was that many of the Nazi defendants were accused of actions that many of the Allied nations pursued; after all, who knows how many people were killed during Stalin's regime.  And of course FDR approved rounding up scores of Japanese into containment camps.  What this shows me is the necessity for a bit of epistemic and moral humility.  It may help us sleep better at night saying that Bin Laden's demise was unjust and a smirch on our nation, but I believe there are various types of justice.  We live in an imperfect world where, unfortunately, sometimes our moral choices are imperfect.  People are deploring "vengeance," yet feelings and emotional moral reactions are crucial as well.

I still say that our treatment of Bin Laden was better for achieving some good ends than the supposed fair treatment given the Lockerbie Scotland bomber, who know enjoys the support of a despot accused of killing thousands of his own people.  The Lockerbie Scotland bomber was given every indication of a "fair trial," and was released on the support of many human rights groups, including the Church of Scotland.  Do you really think justice has been achieved in that case?  I suppose it is some comfort that we can collectively look ourselves in the mirror and say "we treated him fairly," but to what end I wonder?
6 years 2 months ago
"The system might have groaned and creaked under the weight of OBL's prosecution, but I have little doubt that justice under the law would have prevailed. The perception of our justice system as a whole as fair and unbiased is much more important, IMO, than any one case, including one involving OBL, and it's that justice system that took a hit when a (presumably) unarmed and unresisting man was shot down in that compound in Pakistan."

Yet Progressives are always telling me (a lawyer, by the way) just how UN-fair and impartial our judicial system - now we're supposed to accept it is the perfect system for trying someone committed to undermining the rule of law?

Re: the Allies, I was relaying criticisms of the Nuremberg trials, not making one.  The post raises the Nuremberg trials as the beau ideal of a fair trial; indeed there were many at the time (including leading American jurists) who did not think they were so fair. 

I notice you didn't respond to the Lockerbie boming trial.  Do you think justice was served, despite all the procedural rights steps being observed?
Bill Collier
6 years 2 months ago
Jeff-

How do you know that I (also a lawyer) am a "progressive"? It's just so easy to slap labels on people so that we can immediately put them in our pre-conceived pigeonholes and thereby assign whatever weight or lack of weight a particular pigeonhole deserves. 

And you're misconstruing what I aid. I didn't say American justice is "the perfect system for trying someone committted to undermining the rule of law," only that OBL should have been subjected to a legal process, which I assumed would likely be American law if he were captured by American soldiers. (Of course, he may also have been extradited to an international tribunal.) As a lawyer I'm sure you recognize that taking the law into one's own hands-as would happen if someone killed an unarmed, unresisting person-is a precursor to eventual mob rule, and that affording legal process to someone even as heinous as OBL reinforces the rule of law. "Equal Justice Under the Law" on the pediment of the U.S. Supreme Court pretty much sums it up in my view. 

And I didn't think your Lockerbee terrorist exanmple was germane, so that's why I didn't comment on it. He got a fair trial from my perspective, even if it was in absentia if I remember correctly, and he shouldn't have been released. I'm not wholesale against early release for medical reasons-each case has to turn on its own specific merits-but someone sure messed up in diagnosing the defendant's cancer prognosis.        
6 years 2 months ago
I believe OBL was an enemy combatant encountered in a hostile environment.  In that case, I'm not at all certain "American law" would have applied.

And I wasn't calling YOU a progressive, per se.  I was only noting that I hear so many times from progressives on why the American judicial system is so flawed and broken, then suddenly that it is a gem when it seems to suit the argument.

I would argue that the Lockerbie scenario is HIGHLY relevant.  It's a factual precedent, is it not?
PJ Johnston
6 years 2 months ago
Something seems to have gotten lost in my comment - the line about Biden should have referenced his suggestion that the political leaders involved in the assassination receive communion (which would be sacrilegious under the circumstances).  Without the reference to communion what I wrote doesn't make a lot of sense.  Sorry.

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