Osama Wanted Dead. No Detainees Wanted. Why?

According the a new report in this week’s New Yorker Magazine, there was never any intention of capturing Osama Bin Laden. The point was to kill him, pure and simple.

This contradicted the assertions of the White House that killing Osama was a split -second decision by the soldiers in the field.

“There was never any question of detaining or capturing him” the special-ops officer told the magazine.

“The al Qaeda chief, who was wearing a tan shalway kameez, and a prayer cap on his head, froze; he was unarmed…No one wanted detainees.”


The SEAL shot Bin Laden point blank with his M4, once in the chest and, as bin Laden fell backward, he unleashed a second round, a 5.56 mm. bullet, into Bin Laden’s head above the left eye.

A few weeks ago I wrote a blog, “Did We Save Bin Laden From a “Fate Worse Than Death”?

I wrote “It’s hard to second guess that Navy SEAL’s decision in such a chaotic and stressful situation. But I am convinced history will reveal that our first goal from on high was a premeditated execution.”

Many readers attacked me for questioning the judgment of the Seal at that harrowing moment; but now the answer is clear. The orders were to kill him.

The question is: Was this the right decision, the best way to most effectively defeat al Qaeda and the terrorists who are threatening the very existence of nations around the globe?

Clearly, Bin Laden did not want to become a captive of U.S. solders.

He would be paraded around, locked in a small cage like an animal in the zoo — dragged from his lair, humiliated like Saddam Hussein — interrogated, tortured, and drugged.

Bin Laden’s image was everything. His myth and the success of his historic mission rested on the image of martyrdom. A warrior hero fated for a heaven filled with waiting virgins.

He saw himself as a modern day Saladin — the Arab conqueror who drove the Christian Crusaders out of the Mideast after 300 years of subjugation. Being killed by a predator missile would not be so bad. To die valiantly fighting the infidels would not be so bad.

Being captured alive and being forced to give up all the Al Qaeda secrets — to betray the cause of a lifetime — would be the worst fate of all. We could have captured him easily according to Nicholas Schmidle’s New Yorker Magazine account. If we could bring a corpse in a body bag back on the Black Hawk helicopter, we could have brought living Bin Laden.

The question of whether we had the legal and moral right to kill Bin Laden is somewhat murky. This was an enemy who was actively plotting to kill thousands of innocent American civilians. True, at the time, he didn’t have a weapon in his hand — the AK-47 and a pistol were on a shelf behind the three Navy Seals when they entered Bin Laden’s bedroom.

Now we know that this was an elimination by death squad. Bin Laden has been described by others as almost an invalid, an old man, a diabetic, with serious kidney and liver problems. By other accounts Osama Bin Laden could not walk by himself and had to be carried piggy-back if no motor or animal transport was available.

The warrior code throughout history has always held that warriors do not kill other warriors who are unarmed and not an immediate threat to them. They take them captive for very good reasons.

But there are four very good reasons, espoused by both liberals and conservatives, why, if at all possible, we should have captured bin Laden instead of killing him.
First: Revenge

Some conservatives would argue that killing was too good for him and his evilness.
They would want him to suffer more for what he did to the thousands of innocents that he murdered. Being locked in a small cell for years on end, and forced to give up his allies and being made to realize that his life’s work had failed miserably would have been a far more horrible fate. In retrospect, they say, we were intolerably merciful. He got better than he deserved … a quick death.

Second: Information

If we had captured him, we would have loosened a torrent of information and invaluable intelligence, betraying his fellow warriors. With the handwritten journal, five computers, 10 hard drives and 110 thumb drives, bin Laden would have been made to talk. Prisoners all break — under drugs, sensory deprivation, no sleep, water boarding, relentless interrogation. Nobody holds out.

Only in the movies.

Sure, prisoners lie and misdirect with gibberish when they are being tortured — they say everything and anything that will get the torture to stop. But they also spill many material secrets.

Bin Laden, alive, would have given up critical information that could save American lives and may have prevented future tragedies and innocent civilian deaths.

With the help of the trove of documents and hard drives, and a live Bin Laden, — every last corner, every terrorist cell, every bank account, — would have been penetrated and dismantled in a way that is not possible now. All his benefactors and Al Qaeda supporters in Pakistan would have been exposed, arrested and jailed. As a NYT story noted, we are not getting the full story from cell phone analysis about Pakistan’s protection of bin Laden. If we had captured bin Laden, and his trusted courier, we might now have a clearer picture of Osama bin Laden’s contacts with Pakistan’s intelligence agency.

This is one compelling conservative argument. Former Bush legal counsel John Yoo — best known for his memos legally justifying torture — said the most reliable information you get is from interrogation

“I am not opposed to shooting people,” said Jeffrey H. Smith, a West Point graduate who served as the C.I.A.’s general counsel during the Clinton administration. “But it ought to be a last resort. If they’re dead, they’re not talking to you, and you create more martyrs.”

The U.S. SEALs should also have taken his three wives (which US intelligence has not yet had full access to) and children if possible. They too would have also helped destroy and penetrate every last terrorist cell and sympathizer. I suspect some of the wives would have been all too willing to talk.

Third: History and Education

Taking Bin Laden alive, keeping him locked up for several years, putting him on trial would have had an educational value to all and discourage would-be future terrorists.

This is why we publicly tried the top Nazis after World War II; this is why we tried Saddam Hussein. To help educate the world as to how such horror can exist, and hopefully to be able to recognize and prevent it from happening again. Let bin Laden, and the rest of the world, hear the statements of the families that he so callously blew to pieces. When Saddam Hussein was tried, and made to listen to the family members of those he gassed to death, it was evidence for all Muslims who had doubts about his mass murders.

Killing Bin Laden was a missed opportunity to prove to the Muslim world that this mythical leader was nothing more than a vicious criminal who slaughtered innocent civilians, against all tenets of his religion. A humiliating public trial would have robbed him of his martyrdom.

Fourth: Legal and Moral

While it is difficult to raise ethical and legal questions about the demise of such a despised and odious murderer, taking him alive would have shown the world that we are not like them. “That is not who we are,” as President Obama said about his decision to not release the death photos.

Obama could have said “Americans do not execute without a trial,” but he didn’t. Our Ku Klux Klan days are over. We will not tolerate KKK behavior even with the most heinous of crimes. If Hitler had been found alive, he would have had a trial at the Nuremberg War Crimes Court. Bin Laden deserved the same.

“The Nazis killed tens of MILLIONS. They got a fair trial. Why? Because we’re not like them. We’re Americans. We roll different.” Michael Moore said.

Even conservatives such as Ron Paul both agree that assassination was a mistake.

“I think things could have been done somewhat differently,” Ron Paul said, announcing his campaign for President in New Hampshire. “I would suggest they should have captured him like Khalid Sheikh.”

“The rule of law, world law and international law must have been respected.” Paul said.
He has a point. Article 23b of the Hague Regulations, signed by the U.S. and other nations in 1907, prohibits “assassination, proscription, or outlawry of an enemy, or putting a price upon an enemy’s head, as well as offering a reward for an enemy ‘dead or alive’.”

In 1975, after the C.I.A. efforts to assassinate Fidel Castro and other foreign leaders, a Senate committee headed by Frank Church concluded that such plotting “violates moral precepts fundamental to our way of life. . . . We reject absolutely any notion that the United States should justify its actions by the standards of totalitarians. . . . Of course, we must defend our democracy. But in defending it, we must resist undermining the very virtues we are defending.”

The following year, President Gerald Ford signed an executive order banning political assassination. It was later expanded by President Carter and President Reagan and that order remains in force.

Cross posted at Huffington Post.

contact: jfleetwood@aol.com

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About Blake Fleetwood

Blake Fleetwood Blake Fleetwood was formerly on the staff of The New York Times and has written for The New York Times Magazine, New York Magazine, The New York Daily News, the Wall Street Journal, USA Today, the Village Voice, Atlantic and the Washington Monthly on a number of issues. He was born in Santiago, Chile and moved to New York City at the age of three. He graduated from Bard College and did graduate work in political science and comparative politics at Columbia University. He has also taught politics at New York University. He can be reached at jfleetwood@aol.com.
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