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What precedent does Bin Laden's killing set?

 
 
Thomas
 
Reply Tue 3 May, 2011 08:10 am
When president Obama announced on Sunday that the Navy Seals had killed Bin Laden, I was relieved and happy just like everybody else. Meanwhile, however, my feelings are increasingly stained by disgust. Consider the rhetorical hedging in Obama's announcement: "After a firefight, they killed Osama bin Laden and took custody of his body." After a firefight, not in a firefight? So the firefight was over when the Seals killed Bin Laden. They could have taken him alive, but evidently didn't care to. That's not "bringing Bin Laden to justice", as official terminology has it. This was a lynching.

Now, maybe lynching isn't always wrong. Maybe it was justified in this case. But what I'm worried about isn't this case, it's the precedent the killing sets. For example, let's say there's a Chinese guy living in San Francisco whom the Chinese government doesn't like. So the Chinese fly into San Francisco with a swarm of helicopters, have a unit of their special forces raid the guy's Chinatown condo, and kill the him "after a firefight". As an American, would you be okay with that? And if not, why is it more okay if the US does the same thing in Pakistan? How does Sunday's raid not set a terrible precedent for future international affairs?
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Type: Question • Score: 35 • Views: 14,396 • Replies: 327

 
panzade
 
  2  
Reply Tue 3 May, 2011 08:27 am
@Thomas,
Good question.
0 Replies
 
engineer
 
  3  
Reply Tue 3 May, 2011 08:30 am
@Thomas,
I think you are slicing the semantics too thin. I did not understand the President's statement to say that Osama was killed after the fight was over. While it is clear they were shooting to kill, it sounds like Osama was killed in the fighting, not after surrendering.
Lash
 
  2  
Reply Tue 3 May, 2011 08:31 am
I think you may be parsing words a bit closely and arriving at an incorrect version of events. The news reports SAY that the US "wanted" or "planned" to take him alive, he fought, they had to kill him. That is the story of chronological events as claimed by the US.

I am also hearing closely related commentary that leads me to believe they were hoping he may choose to fight, and they are glad he's dead and his body is fish food.

A trial and a protracted time of him being alive but headed for death in a trial could have caused a great deal of mayhem and murder - plus the bully pulpit of a trial for OBL to say whatever he wanted

(see "Blow up America now, beloved sleeper cells).

- or the presence of his body to whip up emotional unstable types. Don't you create shrines from artifacts from bodies? I could imagine shrines popping up all over the ME, featuring masses of devotees, performing nutty religious masturbation, and going about blowing people up after hanging out at the cool new OBL shrine.

I'm pretty sure the US is quite glad things happened the way they did, so it leads me to wonder if they massaged events to lead to a fire fight - or if they made an effort to take him alive. Surely the tape watched by the NS staff of the operation will have that answer.

sozobe
 
  1  
Reply Tue 3 May, 2011 08:37 am
Jeffrey Toobin on the legality of it all:

http://www.newyorker.com/online/blogs/newsdesk/2011/05/killing-osama-was-it-legal.html
0 Replies
 
joefromchicago
 
  3  
Reply Tue 3 May, 2011 08:48 am
@Thomas,
Assassination has always been a touchy subject in international law. Officially, assassinating your enemy is a violation of international law, but it all depends on how you define "assassination." In World War II, when the US obtained intelligence that Japanese Admiral Yamamoto would be flying around the Solomon Islands, inspecting troops, a squadron of fighters was dispatched and Yamamoto's plane was shot down. Although Yamamoto was specifically targeted, most commentators don't regard that as an "assassination."

Much depends on whether the target of the attempt is a combatant or non-combatant. Shooting someone who is shooting at you is OK, shooting unarmed civilians is not OK. That's easy. But there's a big grey area between those two extremes. Is the unarmed guy who orders the guy to shoot at you a combatant or a non-combatant? That's not clear. On one hand, if he's a combatant, that would make any decision-maker in a combatant government a legitimate target, which doesn't sound right. On the other hand, if he's not a combatant, then that would mean it would be a war crime to kill Hitler, but not a war crime to kill one of his bodyguards, which doesn't sound quite right either.

Nowadays, we usually avoid the moral ambiguity by simply claiming that we're not aiming at the leader -- but if he steps in the way of the bullet that's not our problem. American and NATO planes have targeted Gaddafi's family compound in Libya on several occasions, but Gaddafi has never officially been a target. That's because everyone suspects that targeting him specifically would be violating international law. But if the Libyan leader just happened to be in the blast radius, well, that's the way the cookie crumbles. I like to refer to that as the "lucky shot defense."

Terrorists, however, occupy a special category. Under traditional principles of international law, terrorists are considered to be like pirates (and foxes): hostem humani generis -- enemies of all mankind. They're not considered members of an armed resistance, so they don't enjoy any protection under the Geneva Convention. As such, they're fair game for everybody. That's not to say that anyone can do anything to a terrorist, but that the limits are certainly more expansive.
Thomas
 
  2  
Reply Tue 3 May, 2011 08:49 am
@engineer,
engineer wrote:
I did not understand the President's statement to say that Osama was killed after the fight was over.

Obama specifically used the words"after a firefight". How do these words not say they killed him after a firefight?
joefromchicago
 
  3  
Reply Tue 3 May, 2011 08:58 am
@Thomas,
"After" in that context can also mean "as a consequence of." For instance, one might say "Smith died after a long illness." That's not to say that Smith died after the illness was over, but that he died as a result of the illness.
Thomas
 
  3  
Reply Tue 3 May, 2011 08:59 am
@joefromchicago,
Thanks for your discussion, Joe! So if in my hypothetical, the Chinese government concludes that the guy in the Chinatown, San Francisco hideout is a Tibetian "terrorist" rather than a Tibetian dissident good enough under international law, and the US will therefore happily let Chinese special forces move in?

joefromchicago wrote:
Terrorists, however, occupy a special category. Under traditional principles of international law, terrorists are considered to be like pirates (and foxes): hostem humani generis -- enemies of all mankind. They're not considered members of an armed resistance, so they don't enjoy any protection under the Geneva Convention.

Pirates commit piracy on the high seas, which are ungoverned. Terrorists generally commit terrorism on land, where a local government can put them in jail. Doesn't this create any distinction under international law?
Thomas
 
  2  
Reply Tue 3 May, 2011 09:04 am
@joefromchicago,
joefromchicago wrote:
"After" in that context can also mean "as a consequence of." For instance, one might say "Smith died after a long illness." That's not to say that Smith died after the illness was over, but that he died as a result of the illness.

I dunno. To me it does sound awfully like Helmut Qualtinger's account of a car accident: "Nothing happpened, my Porsche is repaired already, it's just that a pedestrian ran into it before he died." (It sounds better in the in the original, where it rhymes.) And Obama, unlike his predecessor, is famously articulate. (Sorry Lash, but he is.) He could have said, unambiguously, that the Seals killed Obama in a firefight. He chose an ambiguous phrase instead. This suggests to me that he has an interest in ambiguity here.
joefromchicago
 
  1  
Reply Tue 3 May, 2011 09:16 am
@Thomas,
Thomas wrote:
So if in my hypothetical, the Chinese government concludes that the guy in the Chinatown, San Francisco hideout is a Tibetian "terrorist" rather than a Tibetian dissident good enough under international law, and the US will therefore happily let Chinese special forces move in?

Not likely, but then much of international law is based on the ancient principle of "might makes right." If the Tibetan dissident were in Somalia rather than in San Francisco, I don't think China would have a difficult time justifying its seizure of the individual. There's a rule that terrorists are fair game wherever they are. There's also a rule that territorial boundaries are inviolable. Clearly, those two rules come into conflict in cases such as these. The tie-breaker is usually the effectiveness of the protest the state can put up if its boundaries are violated. As the Athenians told the Melians over 2000 years ago, the strong do what they will and the weak suffer what they must. That's still true today.

Thomas wrote:
Pirates commit piracy on the high seas, which are ungoverned. Terrorists generally commit terrorism on land, where a local government can put them in jail. Doesn't this create any distinction under international law?

Yes and no. As a general matter, states can't interfere in the internal matters of another state, and that goes for killing people who are located in that state. But if that state isn't fulfilling its obligations under international law -- and harboring terrorists is an example of that -- then it's clear that an aggrieved state can take matters into its own hands. Israel's abduction of Eichmann from Argentina is one example of that kind of self-help in international law. Eichmann, as a war criminal, was also hostem humani generis. Any state could have seized him. Did Israel violate Argentina's sovereignty? Sure, but since Argentina wasn't doing anything about a notorious war criminal in its midst, its protests were largely ignored.
0 Replies
 
engineer
 
  2  
Reply Tue 3 May, 2011 09:17 am
@Thomas,
"Famously articulate" people also tend to use ten words where five will do. The way he said it sounds more formal and eloquent and as Joe pointed out is not an unconventional way of saying Osama was killed in a firefight.
0 Replies
 
joefromchicago
 
  1  
Reply Tue 3 May, 2011 09:19 am
@Thomas,
Thomas wrote:
He could have said, unambiguously, that the Seals killed Obama in a firefight. He chose an ambiguous phrase instead. This suggests to me that he has an interest in ambiguity here.

That's possible. We don't have all the details. But you should also remember that Obama is a lawyer, and lawyers have a habit of preferring the opaque phrase to the transparent, even when it's not necessary to be opaque.
Thomas
 
  3  
Reply Tue 3 May, 2011 09:20 am
To repeat my original question: How does this incident not set a precedent that political assassinations are okay as long as the assassinating government calls them something else?
Thomas
 
  1  
Reply Tue 3 May, 2011 09:21 am
@joefromchicago,
I hope you're right and I'm overinterpreting, Joe and engineer.
joefromchicago
 
  3  
Reply Tue 3 May, 2011 09:25 am
@Thomas,
Thomas wrote:

To repeat my original question: How does this incident not set a precedent that political assassinations are okay as long as the assassinating government calls them something else?

I don't think that's setting a precedent. That's merely following a precedent.
Thomas
 
  4  
Reply Tue 3 May, 2011 09:42 am
@joefromchicago,
It's hard to make me feel like a naive idealist, but sometimes you pull it off, Joe. Smile

I guess that at its core, my problem is with your premise that right makes right in international law. I always thought that the Nuremberg trials, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and the founding of the UN have established a more just framework for governing these matters. To be sure, it's still a weak and incomplete framework, but I see that as a bug in international law, not a feature. That's my naively idealistic view anyway.
parados
 
  1  
Reply Tue 3 May, 2011 09:47 am
@Thomas,
Let me put it another way for you Thomas.

The fire fight occurred downstairs in an exchange with several body guards.
When they got upstairs Osama was armed and put up resistance.


The question isn't just "after" but it also is about the meaning of "fire fight" which I would take to be several people exchanging fire.
Thomas
 
  4  
Reply Tue 3 May, 2011 09:51 am
@Lash,
Lash wrote:
A trial and a protracted time of him being alive but headed for death in a trial could have caused a great deal of mayhem and murder - plus the bully pulpit of a trial for OBL to say whatever he wanted

True, but that could just as well have been an argument against hunting him down in the first place. Bin Laden had become an operationally unimportant figurehead for the Al Quaeda movement---and his death won't stop him from remaining a figurehead.

Lash wrote:
or the presence of his body to whip up emotional unstable types. Don't you create shrines from artifacts from bodies? I could imagine shrines popping up all over the ME, featuring masses of devotees, performing nutty religious masturbation, and going about blowing people up after hanging out at the cool new OBL shrine.

True, but insignificant, because you don't need shrines for purposes like that. Che Guevara doesn't have a shrine, and yet his admirers never had any problem recognizing each other and getting together. All they need to do is look at each other's T-shirts. My guess is that Bin-Laden T-shirts will become to radical Muslims what Che T-shirts have always been to lefties. That's true whether Bin Laden is dead or alive.
Thomas
 
  1  
Reply Tue 3 May, 2011 09:58 am
@parados,
Fair enough, Parados. Maybe I was overinterpreting Obama's language. That leaves the problem of legitimizing political assassinations on other nations' territory. I'm not disputing that the US can get away with it because they're the strongest country in the world. But I reject that "getting away with it" equals "it being right".
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