Thursday, May 5, 2011

Our view: Armed or unarmed, bin Laden got what he deserved

Thursday, May 5, 2011

Does it matter that Osama bin Laden was apparently unarmed when American commandos shot him to death and not, as initially reported, brandishing a weapon and hiding behind a woman?

  • Pakistani security personnel measure a wall of Osama bin Laden's compound Tuesday in Abbottabad.

    By Aamir Qureshi, AFP/Getty Images

    Pakistani security personnel measure a wall of Osama bin Laden's compound Tuesday in Abbottabad.

By Aamir Qureshi, AFP/Getty Images

Pakistani security personnel measure a wall of Osama bin Laden's compound Tuesday in Abbottabad.

In a word, no.

Whether judged by the formal rules of war, the pragmatic need to eliminate a threat or a gut-level hunger to deliver justice for the mass murder of 9/11, bin Laden deserved to die by any means necessary.

Still, a few voices are calling for an inquiry into how bin Laden was killed and questioning whether he could, and should, have been captured alive and put on trial. The facts, the law and circumstances of the operation should put those questions to rest.

Bin Laden declared war on the U.S. in a fatwa in 1996. Two years later, he attacked two U.S. Embassies in East Africa, killing 220 people, including a dozen Americans; he followed up in 2000 with an attack on the USS Cole, killing 17 sailors. Then he engineered the incredible slaughter of 9/11. And in his sick mind that was just a warm-up. He said he wanted to kill 4 million Americans.

Splitting hairs over how he died might be an interesting exercise for academics or a convenient tool of anti-American activists, but nothing will change the fact that justice was done.


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Nor do the circumstances suggest any impropriety. When Navy SEALs, adrenalin pumping, burst into bin Laden's Pakistani lair on Sunday night, they faced gunfire. They shot their way upstairs and into a room with the terrorist leader. They couldn't have known whether he had a hidden weapon, a suicide vest or a switch to blow them all away. Shooting to kill was the reasonable choice.

If legal justifications are needed, they, too, are on the government's side. On Sept. 18, 2001, Congress authorized the president to use "all necessary and appropriate force against those" who plotted and carried out the 9/11 attacks, essentially a declaration of war. Shooting a lawful target and who more than bin Laden would qualify? is legal under international law except when that target is surrendering. Short of lying on the ground and waving a white flag, bin Laden was fair game.

Some Muslim clerics are also complaining that bin Laden's burial did not comply with Islam's rules. In fact, he was treated with far more respect in death than he ever showed to the living swiftly buried at sea after his body was cleaned and wrapped in accordance with Islamic practice. Again, a well-considered choice. Any gravesite could have become a terrorist shrine.

The only tough call is whether to release a photo of bin Laden's corpse to prove he's dead.

Doing so would not silence the skeptics, as President Obama said Wednesday in an interview with CBS explaining his decision keep the photo private. The question is whether its release would hurt or help American objectives in the Muslim world.

Obama believes it would be effectively exploited by Islamist propagandists. It might well be.On the other hand, visual evidence could be demoralizing to bin Laden's followers and helpful to U.S. credibility.

It's hard to fault either choice. But in close calls, it is usually best to err on the side of disclosure.

What's not worth fretting over is whether bin Laden was treated properly, in life or in death. He was owed nothing but an unpleasant ending.


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