Is Assassination an Act of Justice?

Five days after President Obama announced the killing of Osama bin Laden, we are still weighing the impact of this news. Most Americans rejoiced at his death, and to many--if not all--of those who lost friends or family members in the wreckage and flames of 9/11, the news that a team of American commandoes had finally killed the man we hold chiefly responsible for their losses must have brought some comfort and satisfaction. And of course we recognize that this long-awaited ending of our quest for bin Laden came as the result of a presidential decision -- the kind of decision that proves him, we might say, to be truly our commander in chief.

Nevertheless, did you notice how this former professor of constitutional law used the word "justice"?

Twice he told us that we killed Osama bin Laden for the sake of justice. In his own words, the president "authorized an operation to get Osama bin Laden and bring him to justice." What did this mean? It could have meant what happened to Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, who has officially been called "the principal architect of the 9/11 attacks" and who allegedly helped to plan many other terrorist attacks, but who was captured alive in Pakistan seven years ago so that -- presumably -- he could be brought to justice in the judicial sense of the term.

How much justice he got is an open question. During his years at Guantanamo Prison, he has been subjected to five sessions of waterboarding, which we treated as a crime during World War II, when we hanged Japanese soldiers for doing it to American prisoners of war. For a time at least, what was once a crime punishable by death became a legitimate way of interrogating suspected terrorists. Nevertheless, though KSM has been not just brutally interrogated but also denied his day in a New York Federal court (because Congress will not allow any Guantanamo detainee to be tried in the U.S.), he will at least be tried by a military tribunal, where -- if he's lucky -- he may have some of the rights constitutionally granted to anyone accused of a crime in America, no matter how heinous.

But what does justice mean in the case of Osama bin Laden? Its meaning can be summed up in a single word that President Obama carefully avoided in his nine minute speech: assassination. Essentially, the President ordered the death of Osama bin Laden. That is what he meant by bringing him to justice.

We now know that bin Laden was unarmed at the time he was killed. But because he was said to have been resisting capture in some unspecified way, we are asked to believe that a team of superbly trained commandoes who suffered not a single scratch in the whole operation had no other way of subduing him than to kill him. And this is called justice.

I don't question the widespread belief that Osama bin Laden deserved to die. But for all its eloquence, the president's speech offered one more example of the way in which the war against terror has eroded and undermined some of our most basic principles. The war, we seem to think, compels us to suspend them. In the recent airstrike on the home of a son of Moammar Gaddafi in Tripoli, NATO forces killed not only the son but also his three young children. In the name of "protecting" the civilians of Libya, NATO -- with our full support -- is clearly seeking to assassinate Gaddafi himself, and in pursuit of this end it will not hesitate to kill civilians or recklessly endanger them, which is hardly more defensible.

Yes indeed, the world is plagued by evil dictators and ruthless terrorists, and the man we have just killed was no doubt largely responsible for the deaths of nearly 3000 people on 9/11. But when we invaded Iraq eight years ago, we had no credible evidence of its responsibility for any of those deaths. And according to a detailed study just published by King's College, London, coalition forces -- our side -- killed over 18,000 Iraqi civilians between 2003 and 2008, more than three times the number of people killed in this country on 9/11. In light of these facts, the president's equation of assassination with justice makes me wonder again just how deeply the "war against terror" has riven the moral bedrock of this nation and darkened the light of freedom, "justice," and the rule of law that we claim to shine upon the world.

One more thing about the president's speech gave me equal pause. When he said that the killing of Osama bin Laden reminds us "that America can do whatever we set our mind to," what was he thinking? That we never really did "set our mind" (a single mind?) to win the war in Vietnam, or that we can actually "win" all three of the wars we are now waging, whatever "winning" means in each case? With all due respect, Mr. President, nothing is more illusory and dangerous than the assumption that if only we "set our mind" to it, we Americans can do whatever we want. No one who does not fully understand the limits, as well as the scope of American power, can effectively lead this nation, let alone the world.