Osama bin Laden’s death: justice and extrajudicial killing

The scenes of jubilation in the US following Osama bin Laden’s death indicate that many people think killing him without trial was a good thing. But you don’t have to be an Osama bin Laden apologist to believe that it would have been preferable for the US to maintain at least a veneer of justice by first putting him on trial.

There were three possible courses of action:

Osama bin Laden

Osama bin Laden

  1. Find bin Laden, kill him without trial;
  2. Find bin Laden, try him and then kill him;
  3. Find bin Laden, try him and and jail him for life.

(1) is pure blood lust. It may feel good, but it lacks even the pretence of impartial judgement. (2) at least makes the veneer of justice possible — of weighing evidence and punishing accordingly. Think, in recent history, of Saddam Hussein’s trial and execution or, going further back, the trial and execution of Charles I. In terms of impartial judgement, (3) is similar to (2) but with an alternative punishment.

Now, if you’re in a firefight with Osama bin Laden and he’d rather die than surrender, then (1) is the only option. But then you’ve chosen (1) because (2) and (3) were not available options. In this situation (1) may be justified. It does not make it just.

Based on the FBI most-wanted list, Osama bin Laden has yet to be convicted: ‘REWARD: The Rewards For Justice Program, United States Department of State, is offering a reward of up to $25 million for information leading directly to the apprehension or conviction of Usama Bin Laden.’

The problem with the images beaming out of the US of Osama-death parties is that they suggest people think (1) was the first preference and best option. Those images just look like people celebrating an extrajudicial killing by a big state.

11 thoughts on “Osama bin Laden’s death: justice and extrajudicial killing

  1. This article makes me ashamed that PC American assholes like yourself are allowed to write words on the internet. I don’t have any family or friends who were killed in Sept 11th, but I’d cut off that motherfuckers towel head and wear it as a hat if I could. FUCK YOU and you’re wishes of a proper trial.

    • Dear Richard,

      I had barely clicked post when I received your comment. What a pleasant surprise!

      I must clarify, I’m not American and I don’t know any victims of terrorism personally. You may think that this should disqualify me from making any comment on ObL’s death whatsoever, but I’m a great believer that one should not be judge in their own case. If someone is too close to the issue then they’re probably not the best person to decide between right and wrong in that case.

      Furthermore, I’m not PC. I don’t care much for what’s fashionable in censorship of opinion. For example, I don’t even mind if you call me a cunt or Osama bin Laden a towel-headed motherfucker. The best of luck to you.

      What I do care about, however, is extrajudicial killing. No state should be able to kill someone without a trial. It doesn’t matter if they’re Richard Dean Anderson, MacGyver or a towel-headed motherfucker who is suspected of (and very likely guilty of) egregious acts of terror.

      All the best,


  2. Dylan – thank god I’ve eventually found someone writing something sensible about this whole sordid affair. You can’ just go around assassinating people now matter how right you think you might be.

  3. Dylan,

    Thank you for a clear-headed assessment of this topic when so many others have allowed reason to be clouded by their emotions. It’s more than a matter of “maintaining a veneer of justice”; it’s whether we follow the rule of law, or allow our president to arbitrarily kill people.

    @andycox — you might also enjoy my discussion of this on the May 3 edition of John Smart’s Blogtalk radio show:


    @ Richard — I’m an American, an old-school liberal, very un-pc, generally a hawk on foreign policy, a bit of a redneck, and I actually knew (albeit not closely) someone who died on 9/11. I also have a soft spot for silly, little things like proper trials, adhering to treaties we’ve signed, and checks & balances on the powers of the Executive Branch.

    Still, you cracked me up (!) with your colorful description of how you’d mutilate OBL’s corpse and wear his towel head as a hat if you could. But of course you can’t, because you’re just some small man with small-man syndrome, who compensates by driving a raised truck and talking tough on some strangers’ blog.

    @ custom paper — Things really are sooo complicated! Perhaps the president could also help you figure out your shoe laces.

  4. Thank you for an article succinctly stating the
    alternatives, with (3) as my choice for any major war
    criminal or mass murderer, including Pinochet or Osama bin
    Laden. Since by current reports the latter was “unarmed,”
    and there are a variety of old and new technologies for
    nonlethally subduing an unarmed but “resisting” suspect, I
    would say (3) is the only civilized choice, as the practice
    of various international tribunals on war crimes and
    genocide confirms by categorically excluding the death

    The basic norm that we capture, try, and imprison wherever
    possible, and reserve lethal force for strict situations of
    immediate self-defense (while seeking to develop better
    nonlethal weapons technologies to permit a yet more
    discriminating response), is something that draws a basic
    line between us and the terrorism we seek to fight. Let us
    beware of becoming the enemy of our own cherished values.

    • Hear, hear.

      I agree, though it’s a little harder to convince people of (3) than it is to convince them of (2).

  5. Dylan,

    Ah, I’m a daily reader of the Guardian online, despite their insistence on continuing to write paychecks to Michael Tomasky.

    Two problems exist in claiming OBL was a military target. One, he & the terror-bombing arm of al Quaeda can in no way be considered a military organization, nor their actions legitimate military operations. They are civilian criminals; no more, no less. Calling it a “war on terror”, or OBL “declaring” war on the US, doesn’t make it so legally, any more than IRA claims to the same.

    Two, if we thus grant OBL & al Quaeda what amounts to belligerent status, then we violate the Geneva Convention’s code on treatment of prisoners by running Gitmo and by trying Gitmo detainees for acts (while fighting in Afghanistan) that then must be treated as lawful combat. Bush, and now obama, want to have their cake and eat it, too. But rubbing out OBL *and* trying Gitmo detainees can’t both be legal.

    P.S. And yes, I’d take a veneer in a pinch.

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