Belfast Telegraph

The point is, bin Laden should have been captured

By Geoffrey Robertson

America resembles the land of the munchkins as it celebrates the death of the Wicked Witch of the East. The joy is understandable, but unattractive. It endorses what looks increasingly like a cold-blooded assassination ordered by a president who, as a former law professor, knows the absurdity of his statement that "justice was done".

Amoral diplomats and triumphant politicians applaud bin Laden's summary execution because they claim that real justice - arrest, trial and sentence - would have been too difficult.

The circumstances of the killing are, as yet, unclear and the initial objection - that the operation was an illegitimate invasion of state sovereignty - must be rejected. Necessity required the capture of this indicted criminal and Pakistan's abject failure justified Obama's order for an operation to apprehend him.

However, the terms of that order are all-important. Bill Clinton admitted recently to having secretly approved the assassination of bin Laden by the CIA after the US Embassy bombings in the 1990s, while President Bush publicly stated after 9/11 that he wanted bin Laden's "head on a plate".

Details of the so-called 'fire-fight' remain obscure. The law permits criminals to be shot in self-defence if they resist arrest in ways which endanger those striving to apprehend them.

Exactly how Bin Laden came to be shot, therefore, requires explanation. Why the hasty burial at sea without a post-mortem examination, as the law requires?

But the chorus celebrating summary execution overlooks the downsides. Killing bin Laden has made him a martyr - more dangerous posthumously than in hiding - and both his legend and the conspiracy theories about 9/11 will live on undisputed by the evidence at his trial.

Killing bin Laden gave him the consummation he most devoutly wished - a fast-track to paradise. His belief system required him to die, mid-Jihad, from a bullet - not of old age on a prison farm in upstate New York.

The notion that any form of legal process would have been too hard must be rejected.

The Security Council could have set up a tribunal in The Hague with international judges to provide a fair trial. This would have been the best way of de-mystifying this man, debunking his cause and de-brainwashing his followers. In the dock he would have been reduced in stature - never more remembered as the tall, soulful figure on the mountain, but as a hateful and hate-filled old man. Since his videos exalt in the killing of innocent civilians, any cross-examination would have emphasised his inhumanity. These benefits flowing from justice have forever been foregone.

America's belief in capital punishment is reflected in its rejoicing at the manner of bin Laden's demise. It was not always thus.

When the time came to consider the fate of the Nazi leadership the British wanted them hanged within hours of capture.

President Truman insisted upon judgment at Nuremberg, which has confounded Holocaust-deniers since its delivery.

Killing not capturing bin Laden was a missed opportunity to prove that this charismatic leader was a vicious criminal, who deserved to die of old age in prison and not as a martyr to his inhuman cause.

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