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May 11th, 2011
Freethought San Marcos: Debating the wrong issues and the wrong bin Laden photos

Freethought San Marcos: A column

Without question, Osama bin Laden’s death was well-deserved, but there is more that we should discuss. I have tried to find the right metaphor to describe the role of Osama bin Laden within the criminal enterprise called al Queda. His death is not like cutting off the head of a poisonous snake. The snake’s head is where the fangs are that inject the poisonous venom. Osama bin Laden did not play that role with al Queda–he did not personally strike at people or targets, though he was a fighter during his Mujahadeen days on behalf of US interests. 

The death of bin Laden is much more like the death of the head of an organized crime syndicate. Normally, such a leader does not kill people or personally carry out violence. He makes known what he wants done, and others in the organization plan the work, organize it, give specific orders, collect the illicit funds, or eliminate whomever or whatever target he wants neutralized.

The organized crime metaphor is also fitting because what bin Laden headed was an organized crime operation that we labeled terrorism; but terrorism was not its purpose, it was its major tactic. Many people experienced in intelligence and terrorism have argued persuasively over the last ten years that al Queda should be fought with tactics used successfully against organized crime, rather than war, invasion, and occupation. The operation that resulted in bin Laden’s death was more like a sophisticated police raid against a Mafioso than a military operation, though reports indicate that it included mostly specialized military personnel, along with intelligence operatives.

Soon after the Pakistan raid was over and bin Laden’s death was announced, politicians and politicos began debating whether the administration should release photos showing the corpse of bin Laden. Some argue that releasing the photos would upset Muslims, or at least jihadists, and lead to more retaliation against the US; some suggest that releasing the kill photos would send a clear warning to other jihadists that they can expect the same as bin Laden got. I don’t care about either of these arguments because I don’t care about bin Laden’s corpse. What I want to see are the photos of the raid itself.

The photos of what the Navy Seals saw before bin Laden was killed would help answer many of the serious questions that have been asked about whether this was primarily an effort to kill bin Laden, rather than capture him. I don’t take this position because I mourn for bin Laden. I don’t. What concerns me is the legality and the effectiveness of what our government is doing to address terrorism. The Seal raid was effective. Most of our other actions for the last ten years have been less so. Whether it was legal under international and domestic standards is another matter.

Is it a good idea, or legally appropriate, to act unilaterally to send a raiding party into another country?  Would another country with a grievance against someone in the US be justified in sending a special operations team here to assassinate a person believed to have killed 73 people by blowing up an airliner, and to have committed numerous other bombings in Venezuela, the US, and other countries?  Such terrorist acts were committed by the late Orlando Bosch, identified by the FBI as a leader of a terrorist organization, who was given sanctuary by the US for decades until his death a few weeks ago in Miami. However, no pictures will shed light on such violations of domestic and international law. What seems unarguable is that the US sees itself above concerns about such legalities.

The former administration declared a “War on Terror,” which is an oxymoron because one cannot be at war with a tactic. Terror is a tactic. Unfortunately, this administration changed the rhetoric about our policy without changing the policy. Our government continues to think in terms of Bush’s “War on Terror” because war justifies many actions that can’t be squared with fighting crime. For instance, if bin Laden posed no immediate deadly threat to Americans, there would have been no justification for killing him. Likewise, if he had been captured before being killed, there would have been no justification for his killing. Taking bin Laden alive, if that had been possible, would have accomplished at least two things:  1. skillful interrogation could have yielded valuable intelligence that would have saved lives; 2. he could have been tried for his crimes and been subjected to a process not unlike that held at Nuremburg after World War II.

If Nuremburg was good enough for Nazi war criminals, it should have been good enough for someone like bin Laden. The importance of Nuremburg is that it stands for the proposition that some crimes are so horrendous that the nations of the world cannot tolerate or ignore them. This was a common view throughout the world about the 9/11 terror, but our subsequent actions diminished that view. By dealing with crimes against humanity through due process and reason, the allies in World War II established principles that helped make our world more civilized, rather than more bloodthirsty, vengeful, and chaotic. My fear is that the supplanting of the rule of law engaged in by a succession of presidents at least since Ronald Reagan, and George W. Bush’s virtual disdain toward the rule of law, has been extended by Barack Obama in many ways, both domestic and foreign.

We still have Guantanamo, secret prisons in the Middle East, the torture of prisoners (both American and foreign), increasing drone attacks across international borders, the humiliation and killing of innocents throughout the world, targeted assassinations against even American citizens abroad, three wars (Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya), 820 US military bases in 135 countries around the world, the PATRIOT Act, our continuing support–financial and military–of corrupt regimes around the world, and a staggering debt to cover the costs of all of these activities.

Dead or alive, what Osama bin Laden accomplished, and continues to accomplish, is changing the world-wide perception of the American character from somewhat benevolent to hostile and lawless. In response, our government has moved the US toward bankruptcy (with the aid of our feckless political and corporate class) and reduced our freedoms in the name of questionable security. As the foreign policy analyst John Feffer wrote about bin Laden’s death, “His assassination calls into question the adherence of the West to its vaunted principles of justice, much as the support for Hosni Mubarak and other Arab dictators called into question the West’s commitment to democracy.”  The martyred bin Laden will continue to be a symbol of the west’s failure to live up to its professed values.

I would like to see the pictures leading up to bin Laden’s death so I can judge for myself the righteousness of our government’s action. I certainly can’t take my government’s word that what it did was necessary or right because all governments lie, as demonstrated by at least seven lies told by a government spokesman about the bin Laden raid. (Read an article by Joshua Holland here). )

If the Middle East changes for the better in my lifetime, it won’t be because of what the US did in Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Libya–it will be because of the awakening (called the Arab Spring by many) that started in Tunisia, led mostly by young people who were not afraid to risk their lives, their fortunes, and their honor for freedom.

© Lamar W. Hankins, Freethought San Marcos

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One thought on “Freethought San Marcos: Debating the wrong issues and the wrong bin Laden photos

  1. I agree wholeheartedly with what you have written and I thank you for writing it. Thank you for even bothering to write it; I don’t know how you summon the drive to do so. On most days I have no hope at all that USG will act any differently than it has in the last 10 years with regards to the matters mentioned above. My brother is now deployed, and has been deployed numerous times, to fight in “The War on Terror,” a phrase which I find insulting to myself and to him as he risks his life for obscure and highly questionable — and much too costly — objectives. As you point out, these matters bear on criminal justice, not warfare, and all attempts to use the tools of the latter here constitute such an enormous mis-allocation — if not an immense waste — of blood, property, time, youth, etc., that I think those directly responsible for these decisions ought to explain why they do not deserve hardly better than what OBL received.

    I urge you to adopt “USG” or “USG officials” and/or variants thereof, in place of “us” or “we” or “the US,” because such a designation puts it more firmly in the mind of readers that a legal entity is being discussed that does not, and ought not, have any tie to one’s psychological makeup, sense of self, etc. This relates to the matter at hand because the governmental decisions that made people vulnerable to the terrorism perpetrated on 9/11, and USG’s plans executed in response to the atrocity, were not carried out with the explicit consent of the governed, much less their informed consent, thanks to media lapdogs and this mentally-ill political culture. I speak of this principle, consent of the governed, as being much more important than the perpetual use of the established system of electing governmental representatives, the latter of which is only intended to facilitate, to the greatest degree possible, the principle.

    There should be more stringent statutory defense against the kind of reckless disregard for human life and property evinced by USG officials in their initiation of these current wars. Perhaps a start would be to pass the Religious Freedom Peace Tax Fund Act or a variant.

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