As it has emerged that Osama bin Laden was killed not in a ‘firefight’ with commandos but while unarmed, many observers have claimed with varying degrees of certainty that the evidence now indicates that the U.S. operation in Abbotadad was an assassination. That it was a plain act of premeditated killing, and that arrest was never the intent of the raid. And many of those observers feel deeply uncomfortable at what appears to them to be an act of extra-judicial vengeance.
While the evidence does raise questions about the extent to which surrender was an option for Osama, it does not yet indicate that his killing was worthy of the term ‘assassination’. An assassination is, at its most abstract level, the premeditated killing of a specific person for political reasons. It is distinguished by its specificity from other acts of war, where people are targeted not as personalities but as cogs within an enemy’s military apparatus. Was that what occurred here? In the dark and din of a night-time incursion, with the clock ticking and an acute awareness that a single friendly casualty is a great propaganda victory for the enemy, it may be that the soldier who fired those two bullets was simply not taking any chances, and responding to the hint of a threat with lethal force. An itchy trigger-finger does not an assassin make. Or perhaps that soldier had personally decided that Osama wasn’t leaving the building alive, in contravention of direct orders? Perhaps his commanding officer told him to take no prisoners, despite orders from above specifying otherwise? There are many possibilities one should consider besides top-down pre-meditated intent to kill Osama bin Laden regardless of the feasibility of arresting him.
If this was an assassination – if Obama himself gave the order to kill rather than detain – that does not necessarily mean that his motivation was normative, and that his intent was to see ‘justice done’ and Osama’s victims avenged. A strike against the charismatic ‘Emir’ of transnational jihad and architect of 9/11 would be a victory in the psychological war against al-Qa’ida’s political narrative, and would change the domestic discourse on the War on Terror for the better. Osama bin Laden can no longer be held up so easily as a symbol of U.S. impotence, or used as a rallying point for global radicalism and violence. Though the operational capacity of al-Qa’ida probably remains uninjured, it is clear that at the symbolic level – the level at which terrorism itself truly occurs – this raid could have sweeping benefits. While some might argue that these benefits could have been equally or better achieved by an arrest and trial, there is a strong counter-argument to support claims otherwise.
An assassination would have avoided many risks and pitfalls associated with an arrest and trial. To have taken the charismatic symbol of transnational jihad and 9/11 prisoner would have led to great diplomatic controversy, and could have created an acute security threat. Should this international villain be tried at the Hague or at a U.S. court? Should capital punishment be on the table? What if militant groups take American expats hostage in a bid to raise the costs of the operation to that of a Pyrrhic victory, where the process of justice comes at the expense of innocent lives? The political controversy and security threats that arresting Osama bin Laden would have generated might make an assassination a far wiser move, strategically.
The ethics of assassination as an instrument of warfare are murky. Typically military action is assessed by measuring its discrimination, proportionality, and necessity. Osama’s status as a combatant is questionable, given his negligible participation in the operational activities of al-Qa’ida. This raises questions as to whether targeting him sufficiently discriminates between combatant and non-combatant targets. Certainly Israel has experienced international and legal condemnation for killing enemy leaders such as Abbas Musawi or Ahmed Yassin, to raise a comparable example. Far less controversial would be the illegality of killing someone who is unarmed and has surrendered. Yet necessity trumps all, in such cases, and if it can be shown that the rationale for an assassination was based on a reasonable assessment that an arrest was simply too great of a threat, it might be successfully argued that shooting Osama bin Laden dead was morally justifiable regardless of whether it was premeditated or not, or whether or not it was a just punishment for a man who to many was the face of evil personified.