Did Osama Bin Laden Win the "War on Terror"?
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We now have conflicting accounts of Osama bin Laden's death at the hands of a U.S. special forces team in a tony Pakistani suburb this week.
President Obama, in his address to the nation Sunday night, painted a picture of a perfectly clean, morally unambiguous operation: he said the U.S. was prepared to take the terror leader alive, but a major firefight ensued and, after trying to use his wife as a human shield, bin Laden went down with guns blazing.
The White House “revised” several key details of the raid in the following days. Bin Laden wasn't armed after all (he still “resisted,” officials say, although it's unclear how one resists a heavily armed special forces team without a weapon), and he didn't use a human shield. One official told CNN that there were no armed guards at the compound, another told Reuters that the Navy Seals team had been ordered to kill rather than capture bin Laden and NBC news reported that nobody fired a shot at the SEALs. Bin Laden's daughter, who was present during the raid, said that U.S. forces first captured their quarry alive and then executed him.
We don't know what happened that night. But we should at least acknowledge that there were any number of reasons why dumping bin Laden's corpse in the ocean would have been seen as far less problematic than taking him alive. What, exactly, would they have done with him? The International Criminal Court can only consider cases committed after 2001, and trying him in a domestic court with its evidentiary procedures was never an option. He could have been tried by military commission, but that process hasn't been widely accepted as legitimate.
On the margins, there has been some debate about the morality – and legality -- of such a “kill team” operation, but most Americans, understandably, couldn't care less. Even if we did assassinate him, so what? Bin Laden was a mass murderer, the bastard got his just rewards, and the U.S. government proved it could still accomplish a major national goal. The country got closure for the attacks of 9/11, and perhaps could now begin to wind down its “war on terror.”
That discussion has overlooked an important question, however. Setting aside the moral and legal implications, and our visceral, emotional satisfaction at seeing an outlaw shot down, would the decision to kill rather than capture him have been in the best interests of the U.S. and the international fight against terrorism?
I would argue that it would not have been – that, in fact, the reverse would hold true. Osama bin Laden is widely seen to have become a figurehead without direct operational command of the organization he founded. His importance, at this point in time, was largely symbolic. He served as an inspiration for extremists around the globe. Had he a choice in the matter, I have no doubt that he would have wanted nothing more than to die in a hail of gunfire by foreign troops in a predominantly Muslim country, a martyr to his cause, rather than rot away in a military prison, aging poorly and providing living proof that the world's most prominent terrorist – a figure who had been elevated to an existential threat – was ultimately impotent in the face of the world's greatest super-power.
Martyrdom has always been a powerful inspiration for others. I certainly don't blame Americans for rejoicing in the news of bin Laden's death, but we may have given him the exact ending he would have wanted, and, in doing so, we may have inspired others to follow his path to a “glorious” expiration.