Kevin Myers: Why the US was morally right to hunt down and kill Bin Laden
The "rightness" of killing tyrants is something which has taxed moral philosophers since Plato. In the middle of a war, in which many thousands have already died, and in which the perceptions of power are every bit as important as territory held or numbers of men under arms, arguments about such killings tend to shift away from the morality of the deed, and onto questions like how? and then what?
Certainly, no moral impediment prevented the British from trying to assassinate Rommel in Libya in 1941. The operation was a very British shambles, not least because Rommel had never even been in the house that the commandos attacked. The raid leader, Lt Colonel Geoffrey Keyes, was killed, and though having achieved nothing, was quite bizarrely awarded a posthumous Victoria Cross. Rommel showed a remarkable restraint in not having the surviving commandos shot, though he was legally justified, for they were in civilian clothes.
The Americans were (as one would expect) rather more efficient when they decided in 1943 to assassinate Admiral Yamamoto, the architect of the attack on Pearl Harbour, after US Navy code-breakers had worked out his schedule. In order to allow for breakdowns, 18 twin-engined fighters were tasked for the 1,000-mile mission to shoot down Yamamoto's plane, making it the longest-range successful interception in the entire war.
So there's nothing new in a democracy trying to murder an opposing leader. Actually, what's more difficult to understand is how little murder of opposition leaders there has actually been in counter-terrorist war. How on earth did IRA leaders in South Armagh remain alive through 25 years of the Troubles? Was it heroic restraint by the British, or simply failure of will, or good old inefficiency? Who can say?
Certainly, sometimes enemies are allowed to remain alive because their successors might possibly be more formidable. According to the official history of the SAS, a British sniper could have killed Rommel in France in 1944, but was ordered not to, because by that time the allies understood the German's mind and felt they could anticipate his strategies: but what of his unknown successor?
It's unlikely that anything about Ayman al-Zawahiri, Bin Laden's successor, is unknown to the many arms of US intelligence. And either way, that knowledge probably made little difference to any assessment of the possible utility of the operation to kill Bin Laden. The Bin Laden brand had long been created, the franchises taken up and the al-Qa'ida network established, just as Asa Candler had spread Coca-Cola long before he died, or Ray Krok with McDonald's.
The real question must be, not whether any great outcome results from Bin Laden being murdered (let us use the word), but whether it can ever be right for a great power like the US to allow any mass murderer of its citizens to live out his days in peace. For there is not merely an enduring moral duty to the thousands of Americans who were killed on 9/11, but also an obligation to lay down a marker for all those who plan terrorist war against the US: once they embark upon that route, they must be sure they will never, ever be safe -- even if they place their bunker 100yds from the entrance gate to the army cadet school of the supposed ally of the US, Pakistan.
And it is that revelation, and that knowledge of Bin Laden's whereabouts must have been widespread across Pakistan's military and intelligence elite, which depresses me most about the killing. What would any state make of Ireland, if the latest Calibans of the IRA had set up their conspicuously fortified headquarters, 100yds from the front gates of the Curragh Camp? So what and who may now be trusted in Pakistan? And what alternative to assassination is there, if a supposed "ally" can allow the greatest enemy of the USA to live within the broader protection of a vital military base? There you have it: duplicity masked by treachery, camouflaged by deceit, wrapped in betrayal and concealed in perfidy.
It is childish to suppose that in times of war, even democratic states do not break the "rules". The Free State ended the Civil War by executing (murdering, actually) 77 captive enemies.
In what way are lawful, ineffectual ways to end a war more humane than illegal, draconian and effective ones? What if the Provisional IRA leadership had all been killed in 1971? Better still, what if George Elser's bomb had killed Hitler in Munich in 1939? Or if the CIA had managed to assassinate Osama bin Laden in May 2001 rather May 2011?
Lawful states may legitimately kill lethal enemy individuals if arrest and detention are impossible -- as they clearly were for Bin Laden. Moreover, even if capture were possible, how many hostages might have been taken once Bin Laden had been brought to the US for trial and imprisonment? Sometimes a complex problem is like an IED: you don't deal with it, component by component, but simply smash it.
Yes, of course, a new problem then arises. So be it. We did not choose this war.