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May 3, 2011

America wrestles its conscience post-bin Laden

Hillary Clinton stood shoulder to shoulder with Kevin Rudd earlier today in Washington, two life-long opponents of the death penalty, praising the extra-judicial killing of an unarmed man. But it changes everything when it's Osama bin Laden.

Hillary Clinton stood shoulder to shoulder with Kevin Rudd earlier today in Washington, two life-long opponents of the death penalty, praising the extra-judicial killing of an unarmed man.

But it changes everything when it’s a very, very bad unarmed man named Osama bin Laden.

“It’s critical that this man, this murderer, was brought to justice,” Rudd declared, adding his appreciation for the Navy SEALS who gunned down the terror leader who claimed responsibility for 9/11 almost 10 years ago.

There was no grave tone or conscience gymnastics to be found the night before as thousands of mostly young Americans gathered in front of the White House to holler and shout “Obama got Osama; USA, USA, USA”.

It started with just a few local students posting pictures of themselves to social media sites and grew into an epic frat party lasting well into the dawn. Capitol police let slide the slabs of beer cans that turned up sometime after 2am.

By dawn it seemed the nation was dealing with a hangover. After the jubilation came solemnity. Too many “what happened” and “what next” questions remained unanswered but some struggled to get past the actions closer to home.

“Osama killed thousands of Americans and it’s great that he’s dead, but celebrating is wrong,” a George Washington University law student told me on the streets of DC after ringing her mother to describe the early-morning clean up efforts.

So too it became clear America had spent the last month obsessed over a birth certificate while Obama held five national security meetings and agonised over whether the circumstantial evidence about the Abbottabad compound’s occupant was reliable.

The tick-tock of the situation room shows Obama was no gun-slinging cowboy president. Given odds that were by no means certain, he asked his team for their opinions, rejected the air strike first proposed by military officials, and eventually made a choice that half of America didn’t think him capable of.

White House chief counter-terrorism advisor John Brennan was reluctant to justify the tactics used in the raid when he held court in place of today’s daily briefing.

There was a plan to take bin Laden alive if he surrendered willingly, Brennan confirmed, but didn’t elaborate on how many seconds that plan was given before the target was killed. He also confirmed bin Laden’s youngest wife was the female caught between the SEALs and their target, and ultimately killed. Brennan would not confirm his own hints that bin Laden had deliberately used her as a human shield.

The troubling question of how Pakistan was unaware of bin Laden’s location so near its capital was left hanging like a WMD inspection over Iraq.

“No country has captured as many terrorists as Pakistan,” Brennan told the briefing, as if the definition of terrorist was unquestioned. But then he turned the screws with the claim that the US ensured the operation was “respectful” of Pakistan sovereignty, although they told them nothing and had no permission to be there. How the operation could be construed as in keeping with international law is not clear.

It was former vice-president Dick Cheney who first linked the now-proven intelligence to the controversial water-boarding interrogations in a rapid audio-only interview on Fox News: “I assume enhanced interrogation techniques we put in place lead to some information that lead to his capture, but I’m not sure. It’s important to keep in place those policies.”

That torture link was validated, if not exactly confirmed, by administration officials who linked the info to Guantanamo and the WikiLeaks Twitter account, which identified the courier and location in the recently released Guantanamo files.

In a perplexingly rare moment, given the sudden patriotism, all the US networks allowed civil libertarians a crack at the government, asking: “If Bin Laden is dead, can we have our rights back?”

A resounding “no” was heard from both current and previous administration officials to the likelihood of any freedoms being returned. Homeland security officials echoing Obama in saying vigilance must be maintained, and Osama bin Laden was just a single head of the Al Qaeda hydra.

Hillary Clinton could hardly contradict her administration colleagues, as she stood, world weary, next to Rudd and gave one last call for international unity against violence. Presumably she means the violence not originating with American weapons and American policy.

Rudd too, held the line, confirming “without reservation” that the death of bin Laden would have no impact on the timetable, scope or commitment of Australia’s involvement in Afghanistan.

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102 comments

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102 thoughts on “America wrestles its conscience post-bin Laden

  1. Stiofan

    Why do you refer to “the extra-judicial killing of an unarmed man”, when the reports indicate that he was armed? Do you have information to the contrary?

    Cue ranting response from Marilyn & Co: “Americans always lie … 9/11 was a Bush family conspiracy… My tinfoil hat hurts …”

  2. SBH

    Thanks Harley, a more balanced report than most others. One small thing. Can we dispense with the portmanteau ‘extra-judicial’ and revert to the simpler and less obtuse ‘illegal’.

    It is stunning how many people fail to realise that Bin Laden’s death is a defeat for all our rights and freedoms.

    It’s also simply amazing the childishness evident in the celebration of the death of this bogey many as if that will solve our problems.

  3. Peter Feeney

    I can’t help but wonder what the reaction would be if Indonesian commandos invaded Australia and shot down one of their terrorists in an outer suburb of Sydney or Melbourne. Would Kevin and Hillary applaud this as justice or is it only justice if we do it?

  4. Stiofan

    I see that CNN is reporting that he didn’t have a gun, possibly based on more detailed debriefs of the SEALs.

  5. bluegreen

    [I see that CNN is reporting that he didn’t have a gun, possibly based on more detailed debriefs of the SEALs.]

    Yep, poor helpless unarmed innocent man.

  6. glengyron

    Regarding whether Osama bin Laden was armed CNN says this:

    A senior administration official said later that the woman who died was not bin Laden’s wife and may not have been used as a human shield, as originally reported. Nor did bin Laden have a gun, as earlier reports had indicated, the senior official said.

    Bold added for emphasis.

    Personally it sounds like a reasonable shot to me, given there was a clear an present danger of bombs / booby traps.

    To survive Osama would have needed to unconditionally surrender. He didn’t do that. They shot him. I don’t see the moral quandary.

  7. zut alors

    If Bin L@den had been taken alive he would’ve been more problematic than when dead. Imagine the consequences if he’d been spirited off to Gitmo.

    However, I am sobered by the jubilant reaction in the USA – for a country which wears its Christianity like a boastful beauty queen’s sash, how can they celebrate murder? From what I recall there used to be a Commandment regarding that…and it didn’t mention exceptions, evil or otherwise.

  8. Johnfromplanetearth

    Unarmed? Then who in the wide world of economic terrorism was shooting back at the Seals for 40 minutes…Mrs Bin Laden? They had to shoot him, he could never be tried! My question is to the Pakistani Government as to how a 3 storey compound built as recently as 2005 with high walls and barbed wire not more than a stone’s throw from a miltary base, can safely house the most wanted man in the world?
    No wonder Obama didn’t let them in on the raid, next stop Pakistan itself!

  9. SBH

    Bluegreen, it would be worth while to adopt a more critical approach. As to Bin Ladens guilt or innocence there is a golden thread in english law. It is the concept that a person is innocent until proven guilty. Bin Laden was never tried. Assertions were made about what he did and how guilty he was but he was never tried and therefore was, according to the system of justice you, I and all Americans live under, innocent.

    I don’t know if he why ‘helpless and harmless’ or armed and dangerous but it troubles me that first reports said he resited and was shot, indicating his resistance was feirce and deadly yet now his resistance seems somewhat less effective and the only weapon was his wife. If he was unarmed, wouldn’t justice, which we all seem to hold so dear, be better served by his capture (albeit ‘extra-judicial) and trial?

    How ever evil Bin Laden was, it should worry everyone that the US feels no need to comply with its own laws and utterly disregards the laws and sovreignty of any nation it can push around. These are hardly the actions of the bulwark of democracy and freedom.

  10. SBH

    resisted not resited

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