We got him, at a cost.
It has been two weeks since the killing of Osama bin Laden. I am now resigned to the fact that I will not know the truth about precisely what happened in that compound, until the 25-year-rule kicks in (and, possibly, not even then). Too many parties from too many sides with too big an agenda have become involved. The integrity of the evidence and testimony is forever tainted and inadmissible.
I am, however, struck by a glaring ommission in this debate. As far as I can see, nobody has tackled the actual wording with which the story was announced by the White House.
This was a mission which had been the subject of many months of planning (and, I suspect, many years of fantasising). Barak Obama himself gave the OK several hours in advance. Every word of a nexus of press releases, catering for several eventualities, and every semicolon of his speech will have been pored over and agreed upon.
This was not an administration being ambushed or a politician “door-stepped”. This was not some ill-equipped PR hack, in a bout of youthful sexism, improvising poorly with “calm down dear”. These were the words with which the professional media machine and the speech-writing staff of the White House chose to announce the death of Osama bin Laden to the world.
Osama bin Laden has been captured and killed.
Captured and killed. A simple google news search limited to the hours following the story breaking, reveals over 80,000 news sources using this exact phrase. Captured and killed. Every channel broke the story on their ticket-tape with this precise wording. Captured and killed. It seems fairly unequivocal.
And then Obama’s speech. “Today, at my direction, the United States launched a targeted operation against that compound in Abbottabad, Pakistan. A small team of Americans carried out the operation with extraordinary courage and capability. No Americans were harmed. They took care to avoid civilian casualties. After a firefight, they killed Osama bin Laden and took custody of his body.” [my emphasis]
Why are we still squabbling over the garnish of the story when its meat’n’potatoes was so clearly and so starkly announced?
The second point I wish to tackle is the polarisation of opinion on the “right” way to react to the news.People will react however they will react. There is no right or wrong emotional response and nobody has the purview to prescribe one. As long as it is genuine and not manipulated, guided or stoked, we must have respect for other people’s reaction. It is legitimate – for them.
In any case, it is a misconceived to try and paint those reactions in one even, primary colour. Life is rarely as simple as four-word tabloid headlines. A person’s reaction to bin Laden’s death does not necessarily dictate a reaction to the way it was brought about. It is perfectly all right to have mixed feelings about all this.
One might consider ObL a marginal figure of little relevance – after all, the US have been saying so for a whole decade during which they could not locate him – and so be fairly indifferent to his death. The same person may feel great understanding for the difficult choices facing the assault team carrying out the mission.
Conversely, one may feel relief, elation, perhaps joy at his death. That same person may have grave concerns about the legitimacy or wisdom of the operation which achieved it. I fall in this latter category.
Like an ancient Greek, I might cheer the death of Hector during battle for the strategic advantage it gives my side in the Trojan War. That does not automatically mean I approve of Achilles dragging his corpse behind a chariot. That can only inflame the conflict and piss off the Gods.
We are told this is now a safer world. Do I feel any safer? No, I do not. Quite a bit less so, in fact.
A viper’s nest has been stirred up and a lately pretty inactive organisation is now, once again, blowing things up. I look for suspect packages on London buses a lot more vigilantly than I did three weeks ago. Police presence seems increased; airport checks more stringent.
Do I feel safer living in a world where judicial process and standards of proof do not apply without exception? Where “enhanced interrogation methods” are seen as effective rather than barbaric? Where one nation may come into another’s air space in the middle of the night and start shooting? No, I do not.
The US Attorney General, on Radio 4’s Today show, cited the example of a Japanese pilot during WWII as precedent for this sort of behaviour. Do I feel safer in a world which seems to have reverted to pre-Geneva Convention standards? No, I do not.
Emerson once wrote “there is no history, only biography”. Interpretation of events is entirely subjective. Small groups of dissident militant extremists, meeting in secret, planting explosive devices… In my beloved native Greece, 60 years ago they were known as The Resistance. Today, we celebrate them with monuments, anthems and public holidays. Had the Third Reich prevailed, they would be known as terrorists.
And so, yes, I am relieved that this apparently wicked man is no more. I am relieved because he was on the other side of a conflict in which I have found myself ebroiled, but about which I was never asked. It is, however, also legitimate to have doubts about the “how” and the “why”. It is legitimate to have the sinking feeling that, if we have sacrificed supremacy of law, covenants of due process, conventions on international engagement, principles of justice, mercy and humanity to achieve this result, bin Laden may have won after all.
“We got him” echoed around Washington and most of the Western World. “At what cost?” is not, apparently, a matter for consideration by anyone claiming to be on “our side”.