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assorted reflections on the bin Laden killing

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Softening Iraq up for invasion. Nobody has been brought to justice as yet.

I watched a little of last night’s documentary, ‘Targeting bin Laden’ on the execution of the al-Qa’eda leader, and assorted others who happened to be in the way, and I’ll try to be brief in response.

What do we know of bin Laden? Well, according to the documentary, he was ‘the world’s most wanted man’. That tells us nothing of course. Why was he so wanted? Well, according to the documentary, nearly 10 years after the September 11 attacks, bin Laden, ‘somewhere plans mass attacks on civilians all around the world’. But how do they know this? Apparently, because it’s ‘common knowledge’. Everybody knows that bin Laden is an evil monster, bent on killing every American, and perhaps every westerner too, and every infidel, and every Moslem who doesn’t believe in his brand of Islam. Didn’t he basically say so in all those videos he made? The documentary also claims that ‘at the top of his hit list is the President of the United States’. Well, hardly surprising – after all, a large percentage of the Moslems of the Middle East would see the US President as a worthy target for their loathing, and given the wherewithal and expertise of some Islamic version of the US navy seals, there would be plenty who would volunteer on a mission to ‘kill or capture’ him, without the capturing.

According to this report, though, the killing of the President had hardly passed the idea stage, part of a vague hope of hitting the US again on the tenth anniversary of September 11. No mention in the report, written some two months after bin Laden’s death and based on documents found in his hideout, of planned attacks on  civilians around the world. In fact the report specifically states that no actionable intelligence was gleaned from the site. Of course, absence of evidence doesn’t count as evidence of absence.

This is a doco very much for US consumption, but still it galls me that the only mention of the Iraq war, the most obviously criminal war of the 21st century, is in passing, pointing out that in the ten years since September 11, the US had fought two wars and ‘spent billions of dollars’. No mention, of course, that the Iraq war, fought for no good reason other than to restore US pride, resulted in between 20 and 100 times more Iraqi deaths than all the US deaths at the hands of al-Qa’eda.

This is no extremist rhetoric. Of course it’s impossible to say definitively how many US citizens have been killed by al-Qa’eda because it’s such an amorphous organisation – indeed some intelligence analysts say it’s not so much an organisation as a network, and not so much a network as an approach or an attitude. Probably the first association of al-Qa’eda with US deaths was the first World Trade Centre attack back in 1993. Six people were killed, but I’m not sure that the attack has been definitively linked to al-Qa’eda or bin Laden. The USS Cole was attacked in October 2000, and 17 US service-men were killed. And then there was September 11, on which day some 2,800 were killed, the vast majority of them US citizens. So, let’s put it at 3,000 US deaths, at the very most. We don’t know, or at least I don’t know, of the exact nature of bin Laden’s involvement in these atrocities, but let’s accept his guilt.

As to the number killed in the Iraq war, the vast majority being Iraqi nationals, this is notoriously difficult to determine, but this site summarizes estimates from six different sources, only one of which [the controversial Lancet estimate] seems anomalous. All the others range from 100,000 to 150,000 dead, mostly civilian [and we should remember that the Iraqi military deaths were of men trying to repulse those who were invading their country]. So, on a conservative estimate, the US-led invasion of Iraq killed at least 30 times more Iraqis than al-Qa’eda has killed Americans. And why not call it a massacre, considering the disproportion of forces? These people never had a chance. Billions of dollars indeed.

Having said all this, the documentary was exciting, like a good war operations movie or a shoot-em-up video game. And yes, I did feel anxiety for the navy seals, and admiration for their courage and steeliness under pressure. I got caught up in it all. And I’m generally, and genuinely, an admirer of Obama, and I’m trusting enough to believe this was an accurate presentation of the mission, and I accept that letting the Pakistanis in on it would’ve been a bad move, and that bin Laden needed to be stopped, and to be seen to be stopped, and that this was an important blow against terrorism. But it was most definitely not a strike for justice. At the end of all this excitement, one politician, a Democrat, made a summing-up. ‘As a result of this successful mission, we have said to the world, if you kill Americans, we’re going to find you, and bring you to justice.’ This is a key statement, primarily because it bears no relation to what we just witnessed, which was a killing. To kill somebody is to kill somebody. It is not, and never will be, to bring that person to justice. In our modern world, which we like to think of as civilized, to bring a person to justice is, quite clearly, to put that person through a judicial system, involving trials, prosecution and defence, and the accumulation, presentation and analysis of evidence. If you haven’t done that, then clearly, you haven’t brought that person to justice. It’s not rocket science.

For all its heroics, this program was actually about a failure to bring a criminal to justice. A failure in international relations. A failure in the kind of co-operation required to bring about a just outcome. A failure to even consider the option of capture. A failure to lead by example. A failure to rise above the easy, cheaply heroic ‘terminator’ approach. A failure to distinguish sufficiently one’s own moral approach from that of one’s enemy. A failure to separate tactical smarts from moral acuity, and to place one properly above the other. In other words, it was just too much like yet another tedious Hollywood action movie, with lots of shooting, lots of excitement, lots of unbearable tension, and no real food for thought.

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Written by stewart henderson

November 15, 2011 at 10:55 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

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