Most Americans, I would venture, didn’t take a second breath before deciding that it was perfectly fine to kill Osama bin Laden this week. As the conductor and one of the master minds of mass murder, who himself celebrated the death of nearly 3,000 people on 9-11, 2001, he isn’t a guy who would get a lot of sympathy around here. He had, after all, convicted himself by associating his name with the murders and releasing video tapes and other statements. And he repeatedly said he planned to do it again.
I was never comfortable with G.W. Bush’s “wanted dead or alive” statements and hearing the current president talk about killing someone is not that easy, either. Is that the job of presidents? Is that what we want them to do? (Actually, yes, but not quite so publicly, perhaps.)
There was no good way to surround and secure bin Laden’s compound and demand that he surrender. When they went in, the fact that the Navy Seals encountered gun fire (according to current accounts) put them on even further notice that they were entering a very dangerous situation. They had every reason to believe the house could be wired with bombs and that there could be many, not a few, guards around bin Laden. That this turned out not to be correct does not change what they expected on entering the compound.
The greatest danger, aside to themselves, was that bin Laden might escape. Remember this: they had no perimeter established around the property. There were no police cars quietly parked outside to stop anyone from leaving. This was, and had to be, a lone wolf type operation: get in, do what needs to be done and get out. There is no way to know what was going through their minds, but I assume from the start of the mission they believed it was necessary to kill bin Laden rather than try to capture him and take him out alive with them. Capturing him at night inside a house could have put them in greater danger themselves.
If they had staged a raid and bin Laden had gotten away, it would have been a horrible disaster for the world and a giant boost for terrorism. Street celebrations would have broken out around the Arab world. Recruiting for terrorism would have seen an immediate spike and new attacks would surely have been launched in the aftermath.
Yet, who was comfortable with the idea of college age people celebrating in front of the White House? While there were only a few jumping up and down and smiling, the impression went around the world that America was celebrating death. Surely, there are people in this world, and bin Laden was one of them, who have earned a quick path to an early grave (even in the ocean), but the student-age celebrants, in my view, were cheering the idea, first, that a burden had been lifted off of them and their country and. second, they were cheering that their country had managed to strike back against someone who had humiliated and threatened their country for more than a decade. I challenge anyone around the world to name a country that would not have at least a few thousand people dancing in the streets in a similar situation.
The end of WW II saw massive street celebrations and it involved the deaths, in the immediate period before hand, of thousands of people, including Hitler in Germany and hundreds of thousands in Japan with the fire bombings and the two atomic bombs. No one was celebrating people being killed. They were ecstatically happy to have the war over and have hope once again that they could lead normal lives without daily fear. That’s part of what was being celebrated in the streets in some places Sunday night: the hope for an end to fear, constant or occasional, about mass terrorist events. That is not wrong.
It would have been much better if someone could have walked up to the door of the bin Laden hideout and asked him politely to come out and surrender for arrest. Wouldn’t that have been lovely? That was an impossibility, of course. A bloody firefight would likely have followed in which bin Laden might very well have escaped back into the Pakistan countryside and lived to kill again. The U.S. didn’t have the option of surrounding the place with tanks because bin Laden was in friendly territory and might have been helped to escape by those in the area.
We should admit that there are things in this world that we don’t like. Fact is, if someone such as a civilian knew where bin Laden was and walked up and shot him in the head to stop his terrorist activities, it would have been fully justified if not other means to stop him were at hand.
The situation faced by the Navy Seals was close to that when they went in. It would be better if these sort of things were not necessary. Killing does, in fact, often encourage more killing, but it can also save lives by stopping an extreme radical movement in its tracks. Bin Laden was an active combatant, actively engaged in war fare against the western world. He was not merely a guy who made one mistake and deserved another chance. If he had wanted to live, he could have called off his warfare and surrendered long ago.