J.D., 1963, Harvard Law School
M.A., 1961, Oxford University, Honours School of Jurisprudence (Rhodes Scholar)
By Richard E. Rubenstein
The May 2011 killing of Osama bin Laden in a suburb of Islamabad by U.S. Navy Seals generated a wave of celebration throughout the United States. The spectrum ranged from a raucous, flag-waving demonstration outside the White House to more decorous speeches about intrepid commandos and ingenious American intelligence agents. Commentators praised President Obama’s decisiveness, lauded his courage, and trumpeted the virtues of eliminating a murderous villain who was reportedly still plotting lethal attacks against Americans and other Western “Crusaders.” The few critics (all extra-governmental) who objected to the killing on moral, legal, or political grounds were quickly labeled oversensitive crybabies and all but universally ignored.
The initial reports of the action by government sources attempted to downplay the fact that the killing was an officially sanctioned assassination. Officials alleged, for example, that although bin Laden would have been taken alive if he had surrendered, the commando team had been fired upon and the al-Qaeda chief himself was armed. Notwithstanding that these statements were exposed as falsehoods, Obama’s standing in the popularity polls soared. As one former intelligence agent of my acquaintance remarked, “What would we have done with a live bin Laden anyway? Put him on trial? All agents understand that “dead or alive’ means ‘dead’.”
Questions about the legality of the action were cast aside, even though respected legal scholars had argued since 2005 that targeting bin Laden and others for assassination was illegal under both U.S. and international law (see, for example, Howard A. Wachtel in Duke Law Journal, 55:266). Questions of morality were submerged in a flood of assertions that bin Laden had been “brought to justice,” that is, that the killing was a just and appropriate form of retribution for thousands of innocent lives taken without cause. Interestingly, serious politico-historical questions – would the assassination gravely weaken al-Qaeda or strengthen it? Would it be applauded or condemned by most Muslims? Would it solidify the U.S.-Pakistan alliance or disrupt it? — were neither asked nor answered. The assassination was assuredly not an act of political “Realism.” It was as ideological, in its own way, as any foreign policy adventure of George W. Bush.
In fact, it has become increasingly clear that, in policy terms, the bin Laden killing is the rule rather than the exception. During the Cold War, the U.S. government physically targeted pro-Communist leaders like Patrice Lumumba of the Congo and Cuba’s Fidel Castro, although that policy was not considered respectable enough to reveal to the public. During the Vietnam War, mass assassination became U.S. policy under the aegis of the CIA’s infamous “Operation Phoenix,” which is believed to have taken the lives of more than 20,000 Vietnamese. Again, the policy was covert. More recently, U.S. operations against al-Qaeda, the Taliban, and other Islamist organizations have relied increasingly on the use of missiles fired from pilotless drone aircraft at leaders or fighters identified by intelligence sources – and these activities have been made public.
One might say that, despite legal restrictions, the American public has gradually become inured to the frequent use of assassination in situations of “unconventional warfare,” especially when the argument is made that liquidating enemy leaders or fighters is less costly and more effective than invading and occupying their nations. What seems largely unrecognized in all this is that the American public and its political representatives have effectively delegated the power to name, identify, and “execute” enemies to the most secretive and politically irresponsible elements of the military/intelligence establishment. According to the U.S. Constitution only the Congress can declare war. But in current practice, any sitting president can “put out a contract” on anyone he chooses, including U.S. citizens like Anwar el-Awlaki, the American-Yemeni militant.
The bin Laden killing is exceptional, however, in the public enthusiasm that it has generated. Clearly, after fighting so many inconclusive, if not counter-productive, wars against Arab and Muslim “terrorists,” many Americans reveled in a demonstration of violent efficacy that made them feel at least temporarily powerful and accomplished. Capturing the al-Qaeda chief, as my acquaintance remarked, would have been “messy,” whereas killing him would write finis to the bin Laden (although not the al-Qaeda) narrative. Moreover, the killing satisfied powerful longings for revenge that, cloaked as a need for justice, deprived the President’s critics of one of their main arguments – that he was weak and indecisive – and clearly improved his chances to be re-elected in 2012. According to one traditional American cultural code, assassinating one’s maleficent enemy rates a very high score on the masculinity scale, while virtually any other action, from negotiating with him to capturing him alive, is ranked as dishonorable and feminine.
I describe this gendering of killing and less violent behaviors in my recent book, Reasons to Kill: Why Americans Choose War (2010, 128-137). The same study analyzes the persistent image in American culture (and, very likely, in many other cultures) of the “evil enemy” as a satanic figure who desires destruction out of innate malevolence toward Goodness – that is, toward Americans and their values (at 60-74). There seems to be a clear connection between the image of a diabolically clever, deceitful, cruel, and potent adversary and a popular willingness to equate violent revenge with justice. Obviously, there is no point in negotiating with a diabolical enemy or even considering what the historical causes of his behavior may be, since satanic evil is always self-caused. Moreover, since his evil transcends mere criminality, there is no reason to capture him alive and treat him as one might treat a felon. Diabolical monsters are not considered entitled to any of the processes or protections of the law.
But the assassination of bin Laden suggests another link as well. The satanic enemy both frightens and “unmans” us to the extent that we may feel that only by killing him – that is, in a sense, by demonstrating that we are as sly, cruel, and ruthless as he is – can we overcome our own fear, shame, and impotence. The ultimate irony, then, is that, by applauding bin Laden’s assassination we behave, in effect, as religious warriors, occupying a field outside the boundaries of ordinary law, morality, and politics – a cosmic domain where absolute Good and absolute Evil seem to clash and we are obliged to carry out the will of God. By daring to act as those Albert Camus once described as “virtuous assassins,” we verify bin Laden’s own theory that the struggle between his followers and their Western enemies is essentially a religious war.
Those who are not troubled by this development would be well advised to stop and reflect carefully on the meaning of retributive justice – the ancient notion (originally proposed to limit rather than to escalate violence) that wrongdoers should be dealt with in the same way they deal with others. Let us hope that this is not a “law of nature.” If it is, I fear that there will not be very much of the United States of America left standing after the survivors of the Indochinese, Iraqi, Afghani, and other wars of imperial expansion have avenged their innumerable wrongs.
Richard E. Rubenstein is Professor of Conflict Resolution and Public Affairs at George Mason University. He is a faculty member of the School of Conflict Analysis and Resolution (formerly known as the Institute of Conflict Analysis and Resolution, ICAR).
Professor Rubenstein was educated at Harvard College (B.A. 1959, magna cum laude), Oxford University, where he was a Rhodes Scholar (M.A.1961), and Harvard Law School (J.D. 1963). He practiced law in Washington, DC, taught political science at Roosevelt University in Chicago, and was professor of law at the Antioch School of Law.
Professor Rubenstein is the author of eight books, the most recent of which is Reasons to Kill: Why Americans Choose War. He is an expert on popular narratives of war and peace, religious conflict, terrorism, and methods of resolving serious international and domestic disputes. He has lectured throughout the U.S. and abroad and has appeared on numerous radio and television shows and film documentaries discussing these issues.
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