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.