One week ago, President Barack Obama (D) announced to the world that al-Qaeda terrorist mastermind Osama bin Laden had been killed in Pakistan. In the time since, we have witnessed three disturbing things, each deserving of some discussion. Here’s what I have to say about each:
Jubilation Over Death
First, beginning immediately after the announcement, we witnessed widespread jubilation and celebration in Washington, DC, New York City, and elsewhere. Of course, almost a decade after the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, we have every right to be happy to see one of its perpetrators brought to justice. I would be lying if I didn’t admit to feeling the same way. Celebration when an avowed enemy is vanquished is understandable, especially when that enemy is responsible (directly or indirectly) for the death of thousands of innocent people. Having said that, there is something naturally off-putting about the veneration of somebody’s death. Somebody as evil as bin Laden is still a human being with inherent, God-given worth . . . even if they have chosen to squander that worth.
We must be cautious in our jubilation, and we must evaluate the motives behind it. We must be careful to celebrate the good (a terrorist brought to justice; a criminal who can no longer commit violent acts) without celebrating the evil (a violent, senseless death of a human being). We should not be any more pleased by bin Laden’s death than we would’ve been had he been captured alive. The joy should come from the fact that bin Laden can’t spread his murderous philosophy anymore, not from his death.
I am happy that bin Laden can no longer orchestrate massive acts of violence and terrorism. I am confident that he has been brought to justice—certainly in this life, but also in the next. There is no shame in being happy about justice being served. But we need not be happy that it had to be served through an act of violence. It is not a good thing that bin Laden had to die, even if it was necessary, any more than it is a good thing when the police have to use deadly force or when a just war requires the use of military force. War is never good, in-and-of itself, even when it is necessary and right. Death is never good either, even when it is necessary and right.
Moral people must bear this in mind as they consider the death of Osama bin Laden. We must keep our happiness and jubilation in the proper context.
Credit Goes To . . .
Possibly the most absurd area of discussion since bin Laden’s death has been the debate over whether Obama or President George W. Bush (R) deserves the credit. Both Bush and Obama deserve some credit for finally locating bin Laden. Bush’s anti-terror foreign policy, largely unchanged by Obama, played a part. But it is the men and women of the U.S. armed forces and intelligence agencies who deserve the bulk of the credit for finding bin Laden and bringing him to justice. This is not a time for political gamesmanship.
The people responsible are not part of either the Bush or Obama administrations; they are politically-independent bureaucrats and soldiers. Their allegiance is not to the Republican or Democratic parties, but to the duly-elected political leadership of the United States and to the U.S. Constitution. They executed Bush’s policies and Obama’s policies with equal amounts of dispassionate dedication. They analysed the data, followed the leads, made the recommendations, and (on Obama’s orders) made it happen.
So who gets the credit? Not Bush. Not Obama. The credit goes to the men and women of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, the Central Intelligence Agency, and the Department of Defense (including the U.S. armed forces). It is their hard, thankless work that brought bin Laden to justice. Bush and Obama both deserve some amount of credit for their overall anti-terror policies, and Obama should be specially acknowledged for giving the final order, but it is the people of the bureaucracy and the armed forces who made it happen. They deserve the lion’s share of the recognition.
One of the most depressing things to surface in the aftermath of bin Laden’s death is the effort by some ardent neoconservatives to justify the use of waterboarding and other euphemistically-described ‘enhanced interrogation techniques.’ A method of simulating drowning, waterboarding is a torture technique that has been used during the Spanish Inquisition, in 19th century American prisons, by Japanese captors in World War II, and by the Gestapo in Nazi Germany—among others. Japanese captors who subjected American soldiers to waterboarding were hanged by our government for war crimes, as Senator John McCain (R-AZ) aptly points out, so it’s pretty silly for us to claim now that it isn’t torture.
Did waterboarding and other torture generate useful intelligence? Yes, I am sure that it did. Did that intelligence contribute to bringing bin Laden to justice? Probably. Does any of this justify it? Absolutely not.
As I said in 2009, “When former Vice President Dick Cheney (R) says that lives were saved because the government got information through these ‘enhanced’ techniques, I believe him. That doesn’t make it right.” As I reiterated in 2010, “I think that torturing our captives, even if that torture gains us information that saves lives, is morally reprehensible even if it isn’t necessarily illegal.”
We have every right to hold enemy combatants. We have every right to question them. We have every right to pressure them to give us information that will help us fight the global war on terror. We do not, however, have the right to stoop to their level. We do not have the right to torture them. We do not have the right to employ the techniques of the Spanish Inquisition or the Gestapo in service of our aims, no matter how just they may be. The ends do not justify the means.
Did waterboarding help bring down bin Laden? Possibly. But it is classic cognitive dissonance to say that makes it okay. It doesn’t make it okay. Torture will never be okay. Torture will never be morally acceptable. Torture will never be justified.