For anyone who believes in the rule of law the assassination– for that is what it was – of Osama Bin Laden by American navy SEALS in Pakistan, raises serious questions about the legal, ethical and strategic justification of the exercise. American troops on foreign soil execute an accused person without benefit of arrest, trial, legal defence or a legitimate verdict of guilt. As a committed opponent of the death penalty and someone horrified by Simon Power’s prolonged assault here at home on the rights of defendants in criminal trials, I know this ought to bother me. But it doesn’t. I’m with the cheering crowds of New Yorkers at Ground Zero. I rejoice with them at the removal from this earth of a purely evil creature who premeditatedly planned, directed, celebrated and boasted of the long-range slaughter of thousands of civilians – men, women and children.
My response, and the response of those celebrating at Ground Zero and around the world, is the entirely normal human response of the fellow citizens, families and friends of those thousands of civilians and of anyone who abhors the premeditated and careless taking of innocent lives. So I have very little time for the intellectual delicacy, the moral refinement shown by a Russell Norman when he says, ‘It really isn’t very becoming for the greatest democracy in the world to go around assassinating people, no matter how bad they are.’
‘Unbecoming’? The term doesn’t quite seem appropriate when discussing a mass murderer whose conscience is untroubled by the recruitment of children as suicide bombers. Were the actions of the senior German officers, who in attempted to assassinate Hitler, also not very ‘becoming’?
Would the German Greens, had there been German Greens, have tut-tutted about that: ‘No trial, no defence, no proof of guilt – shocking!’ As for proof of Bin Laden’s guilt, it comes from his own mouth. It is documented in a series of messages, some on video, which he delivered to the infidels of the West. Bin Laden is a proud monster. He wants us to know what he has done, what he intends to do. And, finally, there is the argument that, had Bin Laden been arrested and tried, we in the West would be safer. Al Qaeda would have respected the United States for adhering to the rule of law and we would all sleep easily in our beds. Such a trial would of course take months, maybe years. And during that time Osama’s suicide bombers would wait patiently for Western law to deliver its verdict. And since it is inconceivable that the accused would be found not guilty, and would be condemned either to death or to imprisonment for life, they would finally accept that justice had been served and abandon their murderous hatred of the West.
And we would all live in harmony and peace forever. Though bringing Bin Laden to trial might have satisfied our moral sensitivities, I’m not entirely persuaded by that argument. Al Qaeda may well seek to revenge Bin Laden’s killing, but not, I would have thought, over such a protracted period. And can all this be squared with my respect for the rule of law, my opposition to the death penalty or my criticism of National’s Minister of Justice for limiting the rights of New Zealanders accused of crime? Not easily I admit. But it may be that terrorism is a crime unique in its intent and its effects and one that requires a unique response, if justice is to be done and be seen to have been done in the minds of those whose friends and loved ones were the victims of that crime.