Means vs. ends: Account of bin Laden’s assassination raises uncomfortable questions

November 14, 2012

Author’s note: I have written two posts inspired by Mark Bowden’s nonfiction book The FinishTuesday’s post reviewed the book. Today’s post considers some of the philosophical and moral issues raised by the book.


As Mark Bowden makes clear in The Finish, his new book on the killing of al Qaeda founder Osama bin Laden, several different tales have been told about the notorious terrorist’s final moments.

Obama administration officials initially indicated that bin Laden sought to use his youngest wife, Amal, as a human shield, and that he was killed in a firefight. Bowden and Nicholas Schmidle, in The New Yorker, write that the wife moved between bin Laden and the Navy SEALs who were moving into the compound. I gather that No Easy Day, a memoir by the pseudonymous Mark Owen, a SEAL who participated in the raid, makes no mention of Amal but says bin Laden’s bullet-ridden body was in a much gorier condition than the two journalists have written.

A serious question — prompted in part because of the differing accounts of those final moments — emerged nearly as soon as the world learned that bin Laden had been shot and killed. The question: Why hadn’t the United States captured the architect of the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks so he could be put on trial in a court of law?

Bowden grapples with why this issue, arguing that the infamous jihadist could easily have been taken into custody without harm to American soldiers. He further contends that bin Laden the defendant in an American court of law “might have been considerably less inspiring to his followers than bin Laden the martyr.”

This is, I believe, an issue that Americans and others who lay claim to the cloak of civilization should explore. After all, evil — or malice, if you will — cannot be extinguished with the killing of one man.

My personal view is that bin Laden would have been much more valuable to the United States as a captive rather than a corpse. Yes, prosecuting him in a secure setting would have been difficult. But, as Bowden notes, bin Laden potentially could have offered invaluable information about the personnel, organization, plans and funding of the remnants of the al Qaeda network.

Moreover, the contrast between summary execution — heat of battle or not — and due process is a significant one. Given the brutal suppression of dissenters by many dictators in Arab nations over past decades, that contrast might have made a very favorable impression on observers who otherwise might not be inclined to like, respect or trust Americans and our system of government.

Interestingly, a failure in SEAL Team Six’s preparation for the raid may have bin Laden’s capture much less likely. One of the two stealth Black Hawk helicopters dispatched to bin Laden’s Abbottabad compound crashed, which was the byproduct of a miscalculation that initially seemed slight.

Because of that crash, bin Laden was the last man that the American special operators encountered, instead of the first. It’s fascinating to contemplate how the mission might have proceeded, and been perceived, had it unfolded according to plan.

There are two other serious questions raised in Bowden’s book, only one of which he probes.

One is the role that “torture, or at the very least coercive interrogation methods,” played in locating bin Laden. The first mentions of the courier who served the al Qaeda architect in his Abbottabad refuge came during coercive interrogations of three captives. (The methods employed included water-boarding in at least one instance.) Another lead was developed in secret questioning sessions at an undisclosed CIA detention center. It’s not clear if this fourth captive was subjected to torture, Bowden writes, but the agency asked for permission to employ coercion.

This raises the possibility that bin Laden might still be at large had Americans not tortured terrorist suspect. Again, Americans and others should consider whether implementing a blanket ban on coercion would be worth such an outcome. Would restricting the use of coercive tactics to extremely narrow circumstances serve to protect national security, and not incidentally enable the pursuit of justice, while adequately preserving core American values?

For those with strong views, on either side of this issue, these question need not even be asked. For many others, including myself, an acceptable answer is hard to reach.

There is one other matter that Bowden almost entirely overlooks, I believe. Just like the question of torture, this issue involves whether brutal and costly means may ever be justified by the ends.

The author writes that Americans honed their initially clumsy counterterrorism tactics thanks to countless raids conducted over nearly 10 years of war in Afghanistan and Iraq.

Set aside the question — settled in the affirmative to my mind and that of many others — of whether the Afghanistan war was justified. In retrospect, the Iraq war has widely and rightly been labeled a colossal foreign policy mistake, perhaps the biggest by America since its Vietnam intervention was ginned up by the political and military-industrial establishments.

The cost of the Iraq venture was hardly trivial. Counting indirect expenses, including replacement vehicles and equipment, the Iraq war could cost the United States $3.7 trillion. That would make it slightly more expensive than the amount, adjusted for inflation, that this nation spent on World War II, according to a 2011 Christian Science Monitor article. (One estimate of the total Iraq war cost came to $6 billion.)

The human toll of the Iraq conflict was no less breath-taking. places the number of Iraqi civilians killed by violence since the war was launched through early November 2012 at roughly 115,000, give or take 5,000 lives. The respected medical journal The Lancet calculated that the war had caused more than 600,000 Iraqi deaths as of mid-2006. Other estimates are even higher.

Closer to home, asserts that 4,488 American service members have died in Iraq since that war’s start, of which 3,532 deaths took place in combat. The official tally of wounded service members tops 31,000, but the site estimates the true number to be more than 100,000.

Many tens of thousands of deaths of Iraqis; thousands of American deaths; a far higher number of physical injuries, many serious; an incalculable number of psychological wounds inflicted by war experiences, some due to the torture of civilian captives, some suffered by the captors themselves.

Weigh that on one hand. And know that Osama bin Laden was found in a nation adjacent to Afghanistan. (Which, to be clear, is nowhere near Iraq.) Then ask this: Could bin Laden have been found and killed or captured without any expenditure of copious money and precious blood in Iraq?

And if the answer to that is negative, then go one step further. Should we as a nation — should any civilized people — have been willing to incur those costs simply to target one man?

Personally, I find these questions chilling to contemplate. Still, I’m glad that in The Finish Mark Bowden was able and willing to raise them.

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