Kevin Meagher debates the case for taking Osama bin Laden alive and trying him before the courts.
It did not have to be like this. Despite the American government initially claiming he was armed when commandos burst into his fortified lair, it is now conceded that bin Laden was in fact unarmed when shot dead. If so, this begs the obvious question: why was he not taken alive?
In the face of the sheer scale of his murderous record, liberal arguments for bin Laden’s arrest, imprisonment, trial (and, yes, perhaps his execution) should still be heard. Indeed, these arguments and values only hold water when tested by extremes. If it was possible to get Eichmann, Milosevic and Karadžić in a court room, why not bin Laden too?
This does, however, appear to be a minority opinion. Sympathy for bin Laden is rightfully in short supply. Most people, especially in America, are glad he is dead. There are no quibbles about the decision to assassinate him. There is little demurring on this side of the Atlantic either, for that matter. David Cameron referred to him as “evil personified”. Indeed, even in the Middle East support for bin Laden appears muted.
“After all, the killing of the Muslim Brotherhood’s leader in Egypt in 1949 [Sayyid Qutb] did not weaken it… More recently, in 2006 when Ahmed Yassin, Hamas’ founder and charismatic leader, was killed, Israelis thought that Hamas would be weakened. Today it is stronger than ever, and governs Gaza.”
In the short term there are warnings of reprisal attacks against western targets. In the US, pressure is already mounting to raise the security threat level. And because of the US administration’s unilateral decision, people in this country and in others are also facing a heightened risk.
Meanwhile the broader political impact is still being digested. The jury, so to speak, is still out as to whether bin Laden’s demise is a blow or a boon for Al Qaeda.
His noxious political credo still finds ready acceptance in parts of a resentful Middle East where western forces are still fighting wars in two countries (Iraq and Afghanistan), testing the sovereignty of a third (Pakistan) and bombing a fourth, (Libya), appearing to stretch the UN Security Council’s mandate to snapping point in a bid to assassinate Muammar Gaddafi.
Indeed, bin Laden is in many respects yesterday’s man, with many of Al Qaeda’s high profile attacks in recent years instead led by its offshoot Yemeni faction.
But what better advertisement for western powers (and, indeed, Western civilisation) than to show restraint – even mercy – to an arch enemy? The images of a manacled bin Laden, stripped of his freedom and denied his voice, would have provided a more resonant image (and undeniable proof of his capture) than photos of his blood-spattered corpse ever would.
Taking him alive would have been no panacea. There would have been nothing resembling a straightforward trial awaiting bin Laden. His crimes and notoriety were such that assuming innocence until guilt is proven would have been all but impossible to uphold. Perversely, therefore, his shooting has the fringe benefit of administrative efficiency, avoiding years of legal wrangling.
But destroying the memory of bin Laden and his vile propaganda is surely as important as eradicating the man himself. His central thesis that ‘true’ Islam is inherently incompatible with a ‘decadent’ Western civilisation, remains. Despite the simplicity of US political scientist Samuel Huntington’s theory of the “clash of civilisations”, this is clearly what bin Laden believed and his followers continue to.
What better way, therefore, of exposing his lies and mania than for the West to display due process and a sense of proportion in dealing with him – and not simply to uphold our values for the sake of it.
The benefits of taking bin Laden alive would have included denying him martyrdom and mystique, exposing him as a busted flush, destined to spend the rest of his life paying for his wicked crimes.
But America stamped its claim on bin Laden from the September 11th 2001 onwards. The events of the past few days have the sense of being preordained. Amid the frontier town justice, a struggling Barack Obama will gain a political fillip from his instruction to CIA director, Leon Panetta, to make bin Laden’s capture his top priority. But in the final act, Obama has sacrificed the moral high ground in sanctioning his assassination.
But as Western forces continue their Sisyphean efforts to win hearts and minds across the distrustful Middle East, an important opportunity to “walk the walk” as champions of freedom and justice has just been lost.Like this article? Sign up to Left Foot Forward's weekday email for the latest progressive news and comment - and support campaigning journalism by making a donation today.