The decision to target and kill Osama Bin Laden is being applauded by all decent people. Approval to capture or kill this mass-murdering terrorist leader was given by Presidents Obama and Bush. It was the right decision, both morally and legally.
Although Bin Laden wore no military uniform and held no official military rank, he was an appropriate military target. As the titular and spiritual head of Al Qaeda, he was the functional equivalent of a head of state or commander in chief of a terrorist army. From the beginning of recorded history, killing the king was the legitimate object of military action. The very phrase “check mate” means “the king is dead,” signifying the successful end of the battle.
Yet there are those who claim that all targeted killings are immoral and illegal. These critics characterize such actions as “extrajudicial executions” and demand that terrorist leaders and functionaries be treated as common criminals who must be arrested and brought to trial.
The operation that resulted in Bin Laden’s death was a military action calculated to kill rather than to “arrest” him. It is possible, though highly unlikely, that he could have been captured alive and brought to trial. The decision to employ military personnel with guns, rather than a drone firing rockets, was probably made by generals rather than lawyers.
Had it been militarily preferable to fire a rocket, that option would almost certainly have been selected — as it was by the NATO forces that rocketed Ghadafy’s compound. A rocket attack would have been a pure targeted killing with no possibility of live capture. The operation directed against Bin Laden may have been designed, in part, to have preserved the theoretical option of “arrest,” though the likelihood of a live capture was virtually impossible under the circumstances. Indeed, it is likely that Bin Laden’s death was deemed preferential to his capture and trial, because the latter would have raised the probability that Al Qaeda would take hostages and try to exchange them for Bin Laden.
Indeed, a US national security official has confirmed to Reuters that “this was a kill operation” and there was no desire to capture Bin Laden alive. This was a targeted kill appropriate for a military combatant but not for an ordinary (or even extraordinary) criminal.
Nonetheless, our government felt it necessary to announce that Bin Laden was shot after he allegedly resisted, thus suggesting he was not killed in cold blood. But it is clear that he would have been killed whether or not he resisted, since this was a kill operation from the outset and it is unlikely he was ever given the opportunity to surrender an opportunity not required under the laws of war.
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