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Targeted killing – Our lesser selves

Posted by Don McLenaghen on May 15, 2011

Targeted killing – Our lesser selves

Who's to say who is next?

As we have all heard Bin Laden (the supposed mastermind of the USS Cole attack, the US Embassy bombings and of course 9/11) was killed by a USA Naval SEAL ‘hit’ team. There are many way that commentators have tackled this issue but the one I think most interesting is how ordinary this event actually was. Bin Laden was one of thousands killed as ‘enemy combatants’ in ‘extra-judicial’ assassinations or ‘targeted killings’. So I thought I would see if a legal base could be found for the killing of Bin Laden. I should preface this discussion by stated that I shed no tears over Bin Laden’s death and agree the world is better without him however does the rational and method of his demise perhaps cast a dark shadow that may harken a darker and less civilized world on the horizon?

First; irrespective of the legality of the assassination of, there is the issue of whether the US had to kill, Bin Laden. This argument falls into three camps. First, if Bin Laden was attempting to (directly or through his minions) defend himself against the Navy SEALS and was killed in this ‘fire-fight’; we could understand them killing Bin Laden. This instance would be a legal excuse for the killing, however the current story (which seems to be holding as accurate) states that there was no fire-fight, that the only armed person was outside the compound and that Bin Laden was unarmed…so no legal cover here.

Second, it is not unreasonable that the SEAL team worried that Bin Laden was wearing a bomb-vest or more likely the place was booby-trapped; again we could understand them killing Bin Laden. One could say that if he posed a credible threat even unarmed in a conventional sense lethal force was necessary however it seems unlikely (but not impossible) that Bin Laden wore a ‘suicide jacket’ while lounging around the house…again from reports there was no warning about the raid which proceeded to its ‘target’ quickly; so it’s unlikely he would be wearing such a piece of equipment. With regards to booby-traps, it seems more valuable to keep him alive to have him point out the traps…how killing Bin Laden would disarm these traps is beyond me…so again no legal cover found here.

Third; although not making the assassination moral or legal but justifying it on pragmatic grounds because it is also conceivable if Bin Laden were incarcerated there would be a large number Bin Laden sympathisers who would instigate innumerable (or maybe just one too many) hostage taking or acts of terror in order to get Bin Laden released…a situation that would put the US in an impossible situation; again making the killing understandable. This is probably the true reasoning for the ‘kill order’; even if no rescue operations were launched by his sympathisers, there is still the whole logistics of trying to bring him to trial. Unlike the other ‘high ranking’ captures, its seems impossible for the US administration to ‘disappear’ him in Gitmo and thus a trial would be necessary , and yet their near complete inability to try effectively any of the ‘important’ terror suspects leads one to believe this would be one trial too far. We again seem to find no legal cover.

A number of people in the pod-o-sphere have been comparing the assassination of Bin Laden to killing Hitler. Ignoring Godwin’s rule, is this an apt comparison? Well, it can be credibly argued both were people the world would be better off without, that thousands of people died due to these persons’ efforts and that both were the outspoken ‘enemy’ of the USA.

That said, Hitler was a leader of an ACTUAL nation legally at war with the USA; Bin Laden was the apparent leader of a NGO with no legal framework. It is true that the USA declared war on “Terrorism” however; this is not a legal but rhetorical claim. It is also true that during times of war, killing the enemy has a long tradition (for example the killing of Admiral Yamamoto during WWII). However, the ‘structure’ of Al-Qaeda is largely a fiction created by the USA. The very nature of a ‘cellular’ terror network is to NOT have a hierarchical structure. This is not to say that Bin Laden was not involved in specific crimes (at least the land mark one of 9/11) but to equate his ‘leadership’ to that of a commander of the air force or a dictator of a sovereign nation it ridiculous.

Bin Laden had been charged (but not convicted) with various crimes in US courts, this is important because under the US law, it is illegal to punish someone charged prior to conviction. Although it is likely impossible to know exactly what happened but it seems plausible that Bin Laden would not have resisted arrest/surrender and could have seen this as a means to re- reinvigorate a waning celebrity. However it seems that when the US (Nobel Peace Prize winning) president Obama ordered the assault on the Bin Laden compound it was a kill order; an order perhaps understandable in a pragmatic way, acceptable in a moral view but highly questionable in a legal reading. This point has become quite murky in the current ‘fog of fake war’ because of the current US policy of “targeted killing”.

Targeted Killing is the assertion made first by Israel (1973[1]) then the USA (2002[2]) and later the Russia (2006); that under specific … albeit vague (yes, specifically vague is an oxymoron) circumstance… the government could authorise the extra-legal execution of particular individuals who were deemed “enemy combatants”. Although this term itself is ill defined; in the past those assassinated were part of the military structure. In fact the Geneva conventions explicitly prohibited the targeting of specific civilians for assassination.

Was Bin Laden an enemy combatant? I think not. He defiantly was a criminal requiring prosecution and punishment but was not party to any war or civil war, further it is likely that he could have surrendered or been forcibly detained (with the caveats mentioned earlier). The Geneva conventions deemed killing of people who are “taking no active part in the hostilities, including members of armed forces who have laid down their arms”[3]  to be a violation of the law of war and subject to war crimes investigation (at least).

Of course under the Bush administration the US altered its definition of a ‘enemy combatant” by agreeing that “legal combatants” conform to the Geneva convention definition, however they introduced a new category “unlawful combatants”, who are defined as “a person who has engaged in hostilities or who has purposefully and materially supported hostilities against the United States or its co-belligerents who is not a lawful enemy combatant (including a person who is part of the Taliban, Al-Qaida, or associated forces)”[4]

The US has made anyone who is a member of Al-Qaida a valid target (of course how one defines WHO is a member is defined largely by the USA although at the time of his death it is impossible to argue Bin Laden did not see himself as part of this group).  This definition though was originally intended to provide a legal framework for the indefinite incarceration of detainees at Gitmo. It was only later that this definition was used to justify the extra-legal assignation of individuals BELIEVED to be a threat to US interests. It is also important that with some notable exceptions these ‘targeted killings’ have been executed by air attacks (Helicopter/planes by Israel and Drone/rocket attacks by the USA) which often get their ‘legitimate’ target as well as a number of “collateral” victims. The kind of assassination that happened to Bin Laden has been a common modus operandi of Israel however it is a new(er?) tactic of the USA; one that we should worry about.

Why fear?

It's can't happen here?

One of the things that is supposed to make modern society better than the ‘barbaric’ ones of days gone by is that we believe that even the worst of criminals should have their day in court…that summary executions are not only immoral but uncivilised; defending rule of law is one of the fundamental principles millions of people have laid down their lives to protect. What the USA has done (not that they are the first or worst but they are supposedly the ‘leader of the free world’) is a complete reversal of the positive step they took 66 years ago at the Nuremberg trials. At the time most ‘civilized’ people thought the leadership of the Nazi regime should be summarily executed en masse but the USA insisted that they be brought to trial…that failure to do so, would undermine all that the war was supposedly intended to defend…that by giving in to our lesser selves we the “civilized” world would become the very vile barbaric thing. That by supporting targeted extra-judicial murder we have become the terrorist. When you let your hatred and lust for vengeance become so great for the ‘evil ones’ you soon find you have become the very evil your crusade intended to eradicate.

[1] “Israel struggles with targeted killing”. MSNBC. August 27, 2006

[2] Pincus, Walter. “US says Yemen aided missile strike” The Washington Post, 2002.11.06


3 Responses to “Targeted killing – Our lesser selves”

  1. phalacrocorax said

    I think Obama ordered the killing of bin Laden because this was his original campaign promise, as I recall from some TV debate I watched. Perhaps it was this one:

    And if we have Osama bin Laden in our sights and the Pakistani government is unable or unwilling to take them out, then I think that we have to act and we will take them out. We will kill bin Laden; we will crush Al Qaeda.

    No mention of trial or bringing one to justice. The plan from the beginning has been to assassinate bin Laden.

    Also, in respect to “comparing the assassination of Bin Laden to killing Hitler”, the difference between these two would be two or three orders of magnitude in the number of people killed. Such a discrepancy is hard to ignore.

    • Yes, I was not saying Obama broke any campaign promises. I did think it was interesting that after WWII it was the American president (Truman/Roosevelt) that insisted on trials for the Nazi hierarchy compared to Bin Laden (and all the others of his ilk) against the wishes Stalin (who wished to execute tens of thousands of German soldiers) and Churchill (Although this is more complex and focused more on the Nazi leadership. Ultimately the London Charter, based on Churchill's Moscow Declaration, established trials as opposed to summary executions). A comparison all the more stark when we take into account the several magnitudes greater the 'crimes' perpetrated by the Nazis…one would think Nazi class 'criminal' more deserving a "kill order" than the Bin Laden class.

  2. said

    Hello, just wanted to mention, I loved this post. It was practical.
    Keepp on posting!

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