Osama bin Laden is dead. Good. The mastermind of the 9/11 attacks on the United States boasted of the jihad he and his like-minded followers were waging against the United States. For nearly a decade, he eluded capture. Then, this week, a bead was drawn on him. Commandoes assisted by intelligence agents swooped in. There was a gun battle. Bin Laden was killed, and his body buried at sea.
The world is a better place now that he is no longer on the loose.
But I am not sure how much justice was done in this gun battle. Three other men, including a women, were also killed. The men were apparently combatants. The woman was a shield. This was rough justice if it was justice at all.
Bin Laden and al Qaeda presented special challenges to the international system. While he was not the head of state, bin Laden had nonetheless declared war on the United States. We ignored him to our peril before he struck the mainland in 2001. But once his followers attacked us, we declared war on terrorism.
The trouble is war is typically declared by own state on another. How does a sovereign declare war on an entity that has no territory, just an ideology?
The just war doctrine declares that wars of self-defense are justified. Thus, in the case of al Qaeda, although the group is no state, it is clear that the entity has declared a war of sorts on the West. We’ve been attacked. We have the right to use force to defend ourselves. By application of the just war doctrine, the killing of Osama bin Laden is justified.
Even so, I can’t join the celebrants in triumphal chanting of "USA! USA!" The taking of another human life is never a cause for celebration. States may be justified in killing a foreign power in acts of war. But this is a shadow war against combatants that are indistinguishable from civilians. When states wage this kind of war, we are all potential targets. A war against terror? Terrorism is a technique that can be used by states, individuals and criminal enterprises.
I keep thinking of the woman killed the other night, the one someone tried to hide behind when Navy Seals burst in with guns a blazing. She was killed summarily. She might be a coconspirator, but she might also be a mere companion. Do we write her off as collateral damage? Can we confidently say that justice was done when a life was taken as a means to some legitimate end? We are all potentially means to the ends of others. Yes, we killed Osama bin Laden, but some part of the killing seems like yet another win for terrorism – scare the wits out of us and then watch us abandon the rules and norms we say we fight to preserve.
There is talk now that bin Laden might not have been armed in the moments before he was shot and killed. Far from going down shooting, the man may have been caught unawares, perhaps even in the act of surrender, however unlikely that may be. If that is so, the killing is gratuitous, perhaps even a violation of international law. We do not shoot to kill those who are not offering violent resistance.
I am glad bin Laden is dead, but troubled by the killing, and all the chest-thumping that accompanies it. The killing seems almost too politically convenient. We shoot to kill a man who is perhaps unarmed. We ditch the body before questions can be asked. And we withhold photographs of the event from the world. All this is the name of freedom and transparency?
I chatted with a judge in one of the state’s criminal courts today about the killing. "I’m glad he’s dead," the jurist said. "But it is troubling to see people rejoicing so over this violence." I agree, although, candidly, I am not grief-struck over the death of bin Laden. It is the death of the others that frighten me. We don’t even name these folks. We cheer the death of the man we hate and forget the identity of those who had the misfortune of being in the same room with him when the bullets started to fly. Justice isn’t supposed to be this blind.