In the days of the Wild West, the posters used to read ‘White House we must presume they read, ‘Wanted! Dead,Not Alive!’ This is the image that and his administration have conveyed through the bizarre but officially sanctioned photograph showing them watching the military operation to kill .’. Now in the
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 in 1976 in response to alleged abuses by US intelligence operatives -namely plots against – forbids political assassinations but anact 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 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, littlemore 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 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. provided the basis for the eventual creation of the , 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 , 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 Manhattansky 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 has argued that it should have been. Bin Laden could not have been tried at the because its jurisdiction runs from 2002 but an ad hoc tribunal could have been set up in The Hague by the , 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 . And let us not forget was put on trial as was . 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 practiceof 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 or the thugs around .I believe President Obama is today diminished by the manner of bin Laden’sdeparture, even if many in main street America are currently applauding.