Tuesday 10 May 2011

Civilised Expectations (A Meditation On The Killing Of Osama Bin Laden)

"Leave to live by no man's leave, underneath the law": U.S. Supreme Court Justice Robert H. Jackson addresses the Nuremberg Tribunal on the expectations of civilisation, 21 November 1945. In executing the unarmed Osama Bin Laden without trial has the United States deviated from the very principles it purports to be defending: the universal right to life and liberty, and the Rule of Law itself?

“BASTARDS!” That’s what I always ended up screaming at the television set every time I watched a documentary about 9/11.

As United Airlines Flight 175 made its final, fatal turn towards the South Tower of the World Trade Centre, I imagined the terror of its passengers.

Hearing the details of how the hijackers seized control of United Airlines Flight 93 made me physically sick.

And, up until last Monday, I’d only to witness again the terrible events of 9/11 for every fibre of my being to cry out in blood-red fury for vengeance.

Vengeance for the butchered hostesses; for the 2,752 men and women who died in the twin towers; for the American people, ashen-faced with shock; for a world that stood, transfixed, by the horrors of that day.

And I’d fantasize about standing before the man who made it happen, Osama Bin Laden, gun in hand, and squeezing-off round after round until he crumpled in a bleeding ruin - just like the proud towers brought low by his command that bright September morning.

But last Monday, when I learned that a commando unit of US Navy Seals had done just that, there was nothing. The sense of exhilaration I’d expected to feel just wasn’t there. Instead, I experienced a very different sensation: a feeling of emptiness; of moral vacuity; of a world going under for the final time … in a sea of blood.

And I realised with a dead feeling that Osama Bin Laden had won.

“HAVE A CARE when fighting monsters”, warned the German philosopher, Friedrich Nietzsche, “lest ye become a monster yourself.”

As I watched the crowd outside the White House wave their flags in the darkness, and listened to the guttural chanting of “U-S-A! U-S-A!”, I recalled the images of joyous Palestinians chanting “Allahu Akbar!”, “God is great!”, and passing out sweets, as news of Bin Laden’s successful attack swept along the Arab “street”.

I heard the American Right demand that President Barack Obama release photographs of Bin Laden’s dead body, and I recalled the “proof of death” videos released by Islamic terrorist groups – the ones where they cut off their prisoners’ heads.

I read the columns of respected New Zealand journalists; columns in which Bin Laden’s death is celebrated in gory, gloating detail: “They blew half his face off.” Columns in which the most splendid achievement of Western Civilisation – the Rule of Law – is casually cast aside: “There are certain people to whom the rules of law and life do not apply. There are certain people who simply have to be killed and thrown to the sharks”. Columns in which President Obama is told he had “a duty to kill”; to make it “final and tidy, no civil rights, no due process”.

I read these columns, and more than ever I was seized by the completeness of Bin Laden’s victory. By the way in which his 9/11mission had succeeded in overthrowing all of the religious and civic traditions which had, over the course of twenty bloody centuries, ceded to the West the unprecedented role of global moral arbiter.

Because it wasn’t the Wahhabist tradition of Islam that outlawed slavery, or gave the world the Geneva Conventions, or the United Nations Charter, or the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. It wasn’t Oriental despotism which outlawed the use of torture, or declared that all human-beings – even convicted criminals and prisoners-of-war – possess an absolute right to be treated with dignity.

These were the hard-won achievements of Christian conscience and Enlightenment reason. They were what made us different. They were what made us better than our enemies: better than our own base selves. They were the fruits of what Abraham Lincoln called “the better angels of our nature” – and they were the most precious things we had.

And Osama Bin Laden made us throw them all away.

WE WEREN’T ALWAYS SO CARELESS. As World War II was coming to an end the “Big Three” – Roosevelt, Stalin and Churchill – debated what to do with the defeated regime. Momentarily they toyed with the idea of summarily executing the Nazi leadership. Given the enormity of their crimes, few would have condemned them.

But they knew better.

The Nazi leaders were arrested – and put on trial.

The American prosecutor, Supreme Court Justice Robert H. Jackson, in his opening address to the Nuremberg Tribunal, told us why:

“[Civilisation] does not expect that you can make war impossible. It does expect that your juridical action will put the forces of International Law, its precepts, its prohibitions and, most of all, its sanctions, on the side of peace, so that men and women of good will in all countries may have ‘leave to live by no man’s leave, underneath the law’.”

This is what we’ve surrendered to Osama Bin Laden: the expectation of civilised behaviour.

This essay was originally published in The Press of Tuesday, 10 May 2011.


Alison said...


Anonymous said...

Total Agreement.

Nick said...

So true Chris, we have surrendered our senses to fear and panic. The years since 9/11 have seen the west pass laws against terrorism giving the state powers that over ride traditions of justice, freedom etc. We did it here and promptly sent state force against Maori in the backblocks. And we meakly stand queuing in airports as we get scanned. Time now to throw off the fear and throw away these dangerous laws.

Anonymous said...

A superb summary. OBL was a symbol and his removal without trial seems a gesture of violence to meet violence, a symbol important to Americans particularly. It's an extension of what Adam Curtis (in the genius doco The Trap: what happened to our dream of freedom) would perhaps describe as an attempt to secure a corrupted form of "negative" liberty using publicly appealing violence.

Madison said...

Excellent. When I heard the news I thought there was something to gain, but to find out he was basically executed brings back the basic horror. The people supposed to be doing good have done nothing but continually sink lower until they're at the level of those they are supposed to be stopping. If that is where it leads is there any possibility of a good outcome?
Excellent piece Chris.

G Gekko said...

Very good synopsis. I was pleased to hear of his death, but there soon followed an empty feeling. He is only a symbol or figurehead, after all, of something far worse. To see the Americans gloating and setting fires to chants of U-S-A, made me realize how base and amoral we all can really be when given the chance. The lack of dignity in the response to the news killed the news that he was dead for me.

Anonymous said...

On balance I believe you are correct.

To be fair to Obama he had to balance the legitimate demand that Osama be given a fair trial, with the reality that it would become a showcase for radical Islam, which would in turn undermine his 'outreach' to the Muslim world.

Furthermore, the inevitable death of Osama would have resulted in a grave which in turn would have become a place of pilgrimage and a rallying point for radical Islamists.

None of these are happy outcomes.

In the end he forsook the civilized approach, and settled for the barbaric.

Would it be too cynical to suggest that in the final analysis, the pending US Presidential elections decided Osama's fate?


Dr Stuart Jeanne Bramhall said...

Brilliant post. I have posted a link on the US site OpEdNews. Americans need to read this.

jh said...

These were the hard-won achievements of Christian conscience and Enlightenment reason. They were what made us different. They were what made us better than our enemies: better than our own base selves. They were the fruits of what Abraham Lincoln called “the better angels of our nature” – and they were the most precious things we had.

And Osama Bin Laden made us throw them all away.
I don't think those hard won traditions precluded executing Osama Bin Laden? Why would that position be absolute?

Since when did those traditions dictate that you couldn't execute (eg) a serial killer?

If Osama was found living in the US would he have been arrested?

Bomber said...

Brilliant post Chris

Anonymous said...

War brings out extremes, the best in some, the worst in others. Bin Laden declared war, killed innocents and crowed about it. His creed exonerated his deeds and elevated them to vitues. He was without the benefit of any other legality. He met his end entirely within his own paradigm. The moral distaste at the circumstances could have been partly avoided by previously trying him in absentia. Any other moral claims should be contained in the question "Is it permissable in any circumstances to kill?" If it is, then executing an unrepentant mass perpetrator, armed, unarmed, on the battlefield, or in his own bedroom is clearly justified.
In my view the US is right in not displaying his cadaver. You don't make a trophy of a dog that has been shot for destroying sheep.

Clearly "as your sword has bereaved women, so shall your women be bereaved by this sword"


WAKE UP said...

I just love the way we keep beating ourselves up over issues and principles that other cultures don't even know exist.

Loz said...

"I have already said that I am not involved in the 11 September attacks in the United States. As a Muslim, I try my best to avoid telling a lie. I had no knowledge of these attacks, nor do I consider the killing of innocent women, children and other humans as an appreciable act. Islam strictly forbids causing harm to innocent women, children and other people." Osama bin Laden, Published in the newspaper Ummat, September 28, 2001

Many questions have never been properly answered about the perpetrators and attacks of September 2001. Who financed the attacks? Why have so many of the named hijackers turned up alive - proving that the intelligence behind their involvement was flawed. What specifically was the evidence that bin Laden was the mastermind behind the attacks? I remember only too well that the government that proclaimed his guilt also claimed undeniable proof for "Weapons of Mass Destruction" in Iraq.

I am highly uncomfortable with many elements of the story of September 11th. Wars have been waged as a result of that day. Wherever war exists also exists power, money and politics, all of which serve private interests instead of any commitment to truth. If he had lived, his testimony would surely have been invaluable in untangling truth from fiction surrounding the attacks. Hearing that he was actually shot in the head and chest in front of his 12 year old daughter further enforces for me how unjust and immoral this action has been.

Is there any scenario where an unarmed, overpowered 53 year old man (wearing pyjamas) can pose a threat to a team of 23 heavily armed Navy Seals? Am I seriously expected to believe that he could mount any form of credible “resistance” that would justify an execution in cold blood? The exercise is beginning to sound more like murder & the fact its drawing almost universal celebration from the media is extremely disturbing.

At the very least, the public had a right to hear if bin Laden still professed his innocence before his secrets went to the grave.

Anonymous said...

I don't agree that Bin Laden caused "western civilisation" throw its enlightened principles away. Prior to 9/11 and here had been numerous failures to apply those much trumpeted principles of justice and equality before the law and this is yet another. It seems odd and somewhat historically inaccurate to suggest that Bin Laden's "evil" prompted a failure of principle.

jh said...

We hung the Nazis after the Nuremberg trials. Should we not have done that?

jh said...

Sorry I forgot that ur talking about a trial.

Galeandra said...

I agree with your dismay, Chris, but I sure don't agree with this: " his 9/11mission had succeeded in overthrowing all of the religious and civic traditions which had, over the course of twenty bloody centuries, ceded to the West the unprecedented role of global moral arbiter."

The last century or so has shown pretty clearly the degree to which barbaric self-interest underlay the the moral exempla projected by western leaders in all sorts of theatres. Bin Laden simply surfaced for us what many in the colonised and decultured nations already knew.

Loz said...

Relevant to this discussion is the news that on Thursday, the US President authorised and launched an unsuccessful drone attack on the cleric Anwar Al-Awlaki.

The kill mission was authorised by presidential decree. This time it was against a US citizen who, like bin Laden, has never been charged with any crime.

In October the ACLU attempted to challenge the authority of the president in executing citizens without judicial process.1 The challenge was lost with the Judge citing (amongst other reasons) the "Political Question Doctrine" in barring the involvement of the courts in determining kill lists.

The “Political Question Doctrine” was cited as excluding from judicial review "controversies which revolve around policy choices and value determinations [which are] constitutionally committed for resolution to… the confines of the Executive Branch."2 This is a chilling acquisition of power by the political wing in the United States.

For the executive to be above judicial reproach has distinct echoes from the "night of the long knives". Anyone not seeing the parallels from history should refresh their memory of the Night of the Long Knives speech (section 5 http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Night_of_the_Long_Knives).

1. http://www.aclu.org/blog/national-security/aclu-argues-president-does-not-have-unchecked-authority-kill-you

2. https://ecf.dcd.uscourts.gov/cgi-bin/show_public_doc?2010cv1469-31

Anonymous said...

And if he had been arrested, and brought to trial in the US, who would then be responsible for the dozens of hostages who would be taken and quite possibly executed if he wasn't released? I suspect this is what was on the mind of Obama and his Cabinet when they issued the order, which I'm pretty sure would have been we want him dead nudge nudge wink wink.

Anonymous said...

I think one of the considerations the US must have considered is a long drawnout trial punctuated by kidnappings and executions on camera posted on the Internet in order to free Bin Laden. I'm sure he was killed with a nudge and a wink but I do sympathise with their dilemma.

Anonymous said...

Try again – I think one of the considerations the US government had in mind was the possibility of a long drawnout trial punctuated by kidnappings and executions on camera in order to free him. I'm sure he was killed with a nudge and a wink, but I do sympathise with their dilemma.