Was the Killing of Osama bin Laden legal, moral or prudent?



It was essentially symbolic. The Deputy National Security Advisor for Combating Terrorism from 2005-2009, Juan Zarate, succinctly put it in the Channel 4 documentary about the killing: "the one image that comes out of this is the fact that bin Laden's final sight on this Earth was the nuzzle of a US Navy SEAL. For those of us that have been looking for bin Laden for a long time, to know that that was the last thing he saw…is actually a moment of joy". This is a story of symbolic victory for the US, and no legal or moral ramification, no case of prudence, can ever detract it away from that. This was "for God and for Country, Geronimo, Geronimo, Geronimo" and not with doing the legal, moral or prudent thing. Mona Siddiqui mentioned in the Guardian article debating the implications of the death, that "bin Laden had become dehumanised, yet he had also become more than human - and the US wanted to get rid of that symbol". After all, he had somehow hid from the most powerful nation on Earth for a decade, and it could be said that this was a great embarrassment for the US, and embarrassment that needed to be rid of. This was retributive justice. It again, falls under the Just War Theory, which is that under the models of individualism and collectivism, the US felt it was just in its killing. Indeed, especially with the model of collectivism, this was considered to be America vs. Al Qaeda. The “war on terror” meant, “when we kill enemy soldiers we do not kill them qua individuals attacking us, but qua representatives of our enemy”. Bin Laden was the ultimate representative, and as a result his death was symbolic to the war against terror.

This is easy to understand, easy to unpack and decipher. The actions of a state in a time of war are indeed understandable by most nations. Some would say that this is why bin Laden’s death was welcomed by so many. But it is important to note that the US is not acting, no matter how much it wants to and how much it does, in isolation. Despite the harsh reality we must understand what the death of one man means for the wider spectrum of international security. Ward Thomas’s article stood out to me as a deeper understanding of why the US has the power to put aside rules of legitimacy to achieve its aims. He talks of the history of assassination and how the approach to it has been shaped in the favour of powerful, contemporary states. He believes that ethical norms typically consist of two strands: a priori moral principles, and historically contingent cultural and geopolitical factors. He goes on; “because norms are the products of political processes as well as moral principles, they are grossly imperfect reflections of abstract morality”. This imperfect and abstract morality means that it can be twisted and skewed to work in the favour of those that it privileges. The history of assassination demonstrates how it went from being widely accepted, to being considered an abomination. As van Creveld describes it, a “fiction that wars are waged between states, not men” helped the already powerful states protect its own leaders. Leadership decapitation for a terrorist organization may not mean much, but decapitation of the leader of a powerful state is an entirely different matter. As a result, this norm became internalized and the thought of assassination became wrong on a reflex. We now question the legality and morality of the death of bin Laden, but “barely bat an eyelash at bomb causalities in the thousands” (Thomas, 2000). This “ethical disconnect” means that the US used its power to make the killing of bin Laden permissible in this instance, but an attempted assassination of its own leaders an outrage.

This fits hand in hand with the “American exception”. Just as Thomas talks of a time where assassination was widely accepted, Ralph agrees that the US “did not adopt a new paradigm. Rather it recalled a time when states could fight wars against non state actors and deny those actors the right that are due lawful belligerents”. Assassination and targeted killings were ruled immoral and illegal by powerful states to protect its own, and used against it’s enemies to further assert its authority: “…their confidence in the justness of distinctly American cause leads them to dismiss the laws of war as the moral relativists concession to evil”. Is this correct? Not at all. Is it a reality? Absolutely. What we seem to forget is that international security is sometimes the ultimate PR job. Before asking ourselves if the killing of bin Laden is moral, legal or prudent, we must question who shaped our ideas of morality, legality and prudence, and if they themselves abide by these ideas. If they do not, why not? Nothing is clear-cut and despite Kant’s best wishes, human beings cannot act with integrity at all times, if ever.