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The Debate We Never Had: The Arrest and Trial of Osama bin Laden

The following is a commentary in an ongoing series of “Reflections” by John Mill. John Mill is the radio persona of Ronald Bruce Meyer and can be heard on “American Heathen.” “The American Heathen” Internet radio broadcast is aired, live, on Saturday nights from 7:00pm-10:00pm Central Time (8-11pm Eastern Time) on

There used to be usury laws in this country. Charging excessive interest could get you fined: you could forfeit all your ill-gotten gains. Then came deregulation and – poof! – the concept of usury disappeared and now everybody charges excessive interest! To quote a movie character, “That ain’t right.” In fact, that ain’t usury by its original definition – the definition the Muslim world still uses. Usury used to mean the charging of any interest. So we slid the slippery slope: from zero, to some, to surfeit.

There once was a nation that started out with a radical idea: what if we adhered to a rule of laws rather than a rule of men or gods? What if we adhered to these laws even in difficult times, times of crisis? Wouldn’t we then be a shining city on a hill? Wouldn’t we then be the envy of the world and a singularity in history?

I am reminded of all this by the anniversary last week of the assassination of the world’s pre-eminent terrorist, at least according to the United States. On May 2, 2011, Pakistan time, Osama bin Laden (أسامة بن لادن) was shot and killed inside a residential compound in Abbottabad by U.S. Navy SEALs and CIA operatives in a covert operation ordered by U.S. President Barack Obama. Osama bin Laden’s death occurred exactly eight years after George W. Bush’s declaration of “mission accomplished” in Iraq on the aircraft carrier USS Abraham Lincoln (5/1/2003).

A year ago last week there was dancing in U.S. streets – a mirror of the dancing in some Muslim streets after the 9/11/01 terrorist attacks that made Osama Public Enemy Number One. Both celebrations were kind of unseemly, but I thought the U.S. ought to be better than its enemies. Was this the America I was taught to love? And the “War on Terror,” subsequent to the terrorist attacks over 10 years ago – was America created to be in a state of endless war?

Certain facts started to nag at me: Osama denied involvement right after the murder of almost 3,000 innocent Americans, only claiming the jihadist mantle three years later. And yet not only did almost nobody question his guilt, but Osama was never charged with this particular crime by the U.S. – and the U.S. simultaneously claims that Khalid Shaikh Mohammed (خالد شيخ محم; now residing in Guantánamo, Cuba) was the 9/11 “mastermind”!

I wonder…

Did we ever ask ourselves, “how we would be reacting if Iraqi commandos landed at George W. Bush’s compound, assassinated him, and dumped his body in the Atlantic”?

Did we ever ask ourselves, or our leaders, on what evidence we determined that Osama bin Laden planned and ordered the 9/11 terrorist attacks?

Did we ever ask ourselves, if Saddam Hussein, who killed many more people than Osama did, or Ratko Mladić, who killed many more people than Osama did – if these criminals could be captured and brought to trial, why not Osama bin Laden?

Are we a nation of laws or of men or gods? Sure, Osama was evil. But he was only a man. “[T]o have arrested the man would at least have allowed the world to know if it was Osama bin Laden who had been found,” wrote Dr. Sean Gabb the day after the assassination, “To have given him a trial would have let us know if he was guilty of the offences alleged against him, and that there was nothing embarrassing about the nature of his dealings with western governments.”

As Geoffrey Robertson, QC, pointed out the day after Gabb, “The order was given by a president who, as a former law professor, knows the absurdity of his statement that ‘justice was done.’ Amoral diplomats and triumphant politicians join in applauding bin Laden’s summary execution because they claim that real justice—arrest, trial, and sentence—would have been too difficult in the case of public enemy No. 1. But in the long-term interests of a better world, should it not at least have been attempted?”

Robertson goes on, “[Trial] would have been the best way of demystifying this man, debunking his cause and de-brainwashing his followers. In the dock he would have been reduced in stature—never more to be remembered as the tall, soulful figure on the mountain, but as a hateful and hate-filled old man, screaming from the dock or lying from the witness box. Since his videos exult in the killing of innocent civilians, any cross-examination would have emphasised his inhumanity. These benefits that flow from real justice have forever been foregone.”

That’s what Robertson says, to which I say, the unavoidable conclusion is that we did not want Osama demystified and debunked. Osama served U.S. government purposes better as a boogeyman than as a criminal. It’s as if we don’t trust the very justice system we’ve spent over 200 years developing and the most expensive (and intrusive) national security apparatus in the history of the world. Do we believe in our justice system only so long as it is never tested?

The al-Qaeda strategy seems to have been to lure the U.S. into a long war of attrition in Muslim countries, thereby escalating jihadi recruitment worldwide and causing economic collapse of the Great Satan – or, as Osama put it, “bleeding America to the point of bankruptcy.” Good job. It was apparently just serendipity that the U.S. also opted out of international human rights agreements, and opted in on ethnic and religious profiling, illegal surveillance, indefinite detention of both citizens and non-citizens without trial, the militarization of our police forces and their use as a praetorian guard for the wealthy and powerful, infiltration and intimidation of activist groups, intrusive oversight of our financial transactions, support for brutal pro-U.S. dictators overseas, secret prisons, torture and extra-judicial unmanned aerial drone assassinations.

Furthermore, we debate the morality of torture in eliciting the intel used to locate Osama, but not the morality of the U.S. in carrying out an extra-judicial killing. As the Economist noted, “Mr. Obama didn’t submit his case for executing Mr. bin Laden to some global civil authority because there isn’t one and he didn't have to – because America’s the biggest kid on the block and, ultimately, what America says goes.” Let me ask you, does an arrogant poke in the eye of justice make us look better than Osama?

We slid the slippery slope from rule of law to rule of our law to lawlessness.

There once was a nation that started out with a radical idea: what if we adhered to a rule of laws rather than a rule of men or gods? What if we adhered to these laws even in difficult times, times of crisis? Wouldn’t we then be a shining city on a hill? Wouldn’t we then be the envy of the world and a singularity in history?



I found some perspective on the debate about arresting and trying Osama at this link. The quote, “That ain’t right” was uttered by the character Mal (played by Danny Glover) in the 1985 Lawrence Kasdan western Silverado. The turnabout scenario of assassinating G.W. Bush was suggested by Noam Chomsky, which I quoted from Wikipedia at this link. The full 5/2/2011 article quoted here, by the Libertarian Dr. Sean Gabb, can be found at this link. The full 5/3/2011 article quoted here, by Geoffrey Robertson, QC, can be found at this link. The 5/4/2011 article excerpted here, by The Economist, was quoted from Wikipedia at this link.

Copyright © 2012 Ronald Bruce Meyer. To hear an audio version of this Reflection, click on this link: Debate We Never Had

Ronald Bruce Meyer

Our Fearless Leader.

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