Tuesday, May 03, 2011

Why didn't we arrest Osama bin Ladin?

We are all servants of the laws in order that we may be free -- Cicero

I was happy when I heard that Osama bin Ladin was dead. I admit it. As the story developed, and we learned that he had been shot by Navy Seals on the express orders of Brack Obama I was proud of my country and my president. I admit that, too. Now, 24 hours have passed, and I've had the chance to think a little.

Here's the thing. I don't believe the United States should be dispatching hit squads unless the target represents a clear and present danger to human life. I think that everyone, terrorists and mass murderers included, is entitled to hear and answer evidence that has been mustered against them. I don't say this because I have a soft spot for terrorists and mass murderers but because I see clearly how power can be abused when its left unchecked. If we agree that the president has the authority to send US troops into foreign country and summarily execute someone, we've granted him a god-like power, one I don't believe any single person should ever posses.  Even if your're confident of Barak Obama's innate goodness and sense of justice, how can we be certain his successor will share those qualities? How can we be certain a presidential successor won't abuse the precedent that Obama set this week, and send the Seals after someone for the wrong reasons? (And I said the same thing when Bush usurped new powers for himself)

I am not mourning Osama bin Ladin, but I'm beginning to think it may have set a better precedent, and been a better expression of American values if bin Ladin had been taken into custody and made to answer to a Nuremberg style tribunal. This would have made it clear that we are a government of laws, not men. That principle - not the competence of our military or the resoluteness of our president, or a pile of dead terrorists - is what ultimately keeps us safe and free.

 I realize several issues complicate this analysis, but I'm not convinced they change the outcome. (1) If bin Ladin was shot while resisting arrest, as the White House claims, his death is justified, but the public is still entitled to something more than the president's say so. The soldiers should face an inquiry and be required to tell us what happened, or the video of the raid should be released. "Shot while resisting arrest" is often used as an excuse for murder by tyrants and despots. We're entitled to see evidence that our president and our military do not operate that way, and we have an obligation to demand it. (2) I also understand the soldiers kill people during the course of their duties, and this is the nature of war. However, the raid on bin Ladin's compound was not a battlefield, and soldiers are authorized to kill only in "kill or be killed" situations. Even in the context of a war, we are not the sort of country that kills people who are surrendering themselves. Again, if bin Ladin was resisting or if the Seals were in danger, a response with deadly force is justified. Nonetheless, the military is obligated to provide evidence that such a justification existed.

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