This past Sunday night, on the orders from President Obama, a Navy SEAL team landed at the perimeter of a safe house that happened to be housing noted terrorist and leader of the al-Qaeda terrorist organization. When the dust cleared, Osama bin Laden and four others with him, were dead.
Wikipedia has a very well-compiled article with the details as they have been known.
Bin Laden, of course, was the mastermind of numerous terrorist attacks, including the bombing of the USS Cole, the simultaneous attacks on the US embassies in Kenya and Tanzania, and, of course, the September 11, 2001, attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. And every politician from Obama on down, has said that the raid “brought bin Laden to justice.”
That’s an interesting phrase. Bringing someone to justice. There is almost no question as to his involvement in all of the attacks I mentioned above, as well as certain others I haven’t mentioned. It just feels strange to say that someone was “brought to justice” when, in fact, that someone was killed in the process.
And that’s not even a statement about the death penalty. You often hear that “justice is served” when a convicted criminal is executed. They were brought to justice when they were arrested, not when they were found guilty or executed.
So at the end of the day, the question bears asking: was justice served when bin Laden was killed?
The way I see it, there were three potential outcomes from any raid that actually reached the terrorist leader:
- 1. His being killed on the spot
- 2. His being arrested and brought to a location where he would take his own life.
- 3. His being arrested, going through a trial that is a media circus and which ultimately results in his execution.
I suppose, in full fairness, a trial that’s not a media circus would be somewhat possible. But if recent history is any indication — and there are three terrorist trials I have in mind (Timothy McVeigh, Ted Kaczynski, and Zacarias Moussaoui) — there will be a surfeit of media personalities trying to put their own spin on the proceedings. And only Tim McVeigh comes anywhere close to the notoriety that bin Laden would have had. Media circus or not, it would not have been a surprise to see the government seek the death penalty in the trial, and I’d be hard pressed to imagine a jury not recommending the death penalty, which would ultimately have been carried out.
So if the net result of all possibilities would have been bin Laden’s death, was the choice of killing him on the spot the right choice?
I think we can immediately rule out option number 2 above. Whatever else is true, we wouldn’t want to give him the opportunity — or his supporters the resulting satisfaction — to kill himself. It could almost be thought of as an expression of unity with his followers who carry out his suicide missions.
So the choices are killing him there, or bringing him to trial and ultimately executing him. There’s no question that killing him then and there would be less costly, and swifter. And is the media circus that would go with a trial just an added cost that we probably didn’t need or deserve? How many times have the news outlets already aired footage from the destruction of the World Trade Center? How many more times would we see it in a trial?
Even without the cost, there’s a reason why Zacarias Moussaoui got life imprisonment as opposed to death: he wanted to be a martyr. Something needed to be done to prevent that martyrdom complex.
Then there’s the intangible about how he might try to get messages to his followers during the trial. Allowing him to live long enough to go on trial could have created additional dangers.
I’m not trying to make an argument either in favor of or against the death penalty. That’s not the purpose of this essay. I’m not going to shed any tears over the death of bin Laden, that much is for sure. Considering the options, though, it seems as though killing him in the raid itself was the right, wise, and prudent thing to do.