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Bin Laden And The Perils Of Liberal Assassination – Analysis

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Not only will the assassination of Bin Laden not solve the problem of Islamic terrorism, it illustrates how the US has lost sight of the liberal values that were once its greatest strength.

By Gerard DeGroot for ISN Insights

In The Wizard of Oz, Dorothy and her friends are sent by the Wizard to kill the Wicked Witch of the West, who rules over the Winkies. Over the course of their mission, they battle an assortment of jihadists – wolves, crows, bees, flying monkeys and Winkie soldiers – before encountering the Wicked Witch. Dorothy then kills the Witch by dousing her with a bucket of water. As she melts, so too does the evil she perpetrated. The Winkies suddenly become Dorothy’s friends, and help her get back to Kansas – the promised land.

Ding, dong, Osama bin Laden is dead. The plotline in Wizard of Oz is disturbingly similar to the scenario many Americans envisage arising from the 2 May action in Abbattabad. By this logic, Islamic terror is the creation of a single madman who, by casting a spell, has persuaded thousands of jihadists to carry out his heinous ends. Americans cling desperately to the belief that cutting off the head of the serpent will defeat evil. “The world is safer”, President Obama joyously announced, “It is a better place because of the death of Osama Bin Laden.” Really?

Liberal assassination

The Oz scenario has long provenance. Back in the early 1960s, the US assumed that a different evil, communism, could be defeated by assassinating its perpetrators. Thus, the CIA plotted to kill Fidel Castro with exploding cigars and Patrice Lumumba with a poisoned toothbrush. More recently, American policy in Iraq was guided by an assumption that Saddam Hussein’s elimination would make the Iraqis, rather like the Winkies, unanimously decide that liberal democracy is a wonderful thing. That same logic has inspired recent attempts to eliminate Muammar Ghaddafi, under the guise of bombing military targets.

This approach is flawed for two reasons. Firstly, it is morally bankrupt. Secondly, it doesn’t work. Thus, even if a special moral case can be made for assassinating Osama bin Laden, the logic for doing so would still remain dubious. Only in Oz does killing the Wicked Witch bring the Winkies into line.

Let us examine moral issues first. The Americans have killed a killer in order to demonstrate that killing is wrong. That logic, central to capital punishment, does not translate well to international affairs. As one bewildered student at the University of Virginia asked immediately after the operation in Pakistan, “Doesn’t taking revenge and glorying in it make us look just like the terrorists?”

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Osama Bin Laden
Osama Bin Laden

“But”, say the supporters of the action, “America is good and bin Laden was evil.” Presumed moral righteousness has been used to excuse otherwise immoral behavior. Heinous acts are seen to be purified by noble ends; a liberal state is incapable of immortality for the simple reason that it is liberal. These assumptions bred torture at Abu Ghraib and brutal war in Iraq and Afghanistan. In effect, terror has become an appropriate response to terrorism.

The US has lost sight of the liberal values that were once its greatest strength. We have seen this with the Patriot Act, under which Americans willingly discarded the freedoms upon which their great nation was founded. We have seen it also with waterboarding and illegal imprisonment at Guantanamo. We see it now with a people who celebrate assassination. What, then, remains of America’s great moral example? As David Rothkopf, visiting scholar at the Carnegie Institute for International Peace, has argued “[Bin Laden] cannily recognized that the only power right now capable of bringing down America is America. He sought to successfully use us against us, and he was for too long successful.”

Bin Laden persuaded America to embrace iniquity, authoritarianism and barbarity in its effort to defeat terrorism. Yet a moral mission remains impressive only if it is perpetrated by moral means. To those in the Middle East not sold on America’s righteousness, the US has seemed rather like the rapacious imperialists who once blighted their lives. As a result, Americans have grown much easier to hate.

Morality aside, the operation was probably illegal. “Killing a captive who poses no immediate threat is a crime under military law as well as all other law,” argues Benjamin Ferencz, who served at the Nuremburg trials. The British international law expert Phillipe Sands has seconded that argument. Illegality, Sands feels, was compounded by the circumstances of the operation. “As a matter of international law, one country is not free to enter another country apparently without the authorization of that country, and intervene, whether to kidnap or kill a national of a third state.”

Killing is easy; understanding is hard

Granted, there are legal experts who disagree with Ferencz and Sands. But even if a legal case for assassinating bin Laden could be constructed, the case for doing so would remain dubious because at its foundation lies the Oz fantasy. In other words, America needs to accept that, among many Muslims, bin Laden was popular. Killing him does not eradicate the reasons for his popularity. Removing a dandelion by pulling off its head merely results in the weed returning twice as strong.

Killing has become a substitute for diplomacy. In the immediate aftermath of 9/11, a simple question echoed amidst the outrage: “Why do they hate us?” What seemed obvious to many Muslims seemed incomprehensible to most Americans. The behavior of Islamic fundamentalists is undoubtedly obsessive, paranoid and irrational, but it is also reactive. As the mainstream Pakistani newspaper The Nation argued in 2001: “September 11 was not mindless terrorism for terrorism’s sake. It was reaction and revenge, even retribution.” It may be comforting to dismiss al Qaeda as the creation of an evil wizard, but doing so does not bring the world closer to resolution.

For much of the world, American culture seems liberating, if only because of its vibrancy. To many Muslims, however, it seems tyrannical, superficial and relentless – the shallow ethos of godless nation in thrall to things. That is precisely because America has proved so much more adept at exporting those things – burgers, coffee, Levis, coke, MTV – than at exporting the liberal values that made her great – humanity, freedom, tolerance, education and the rule of law. Liberal capitalism has been ruthlessly disseminated without the liberal ethic that was always supposed to go with it.

Therein lies the problem. While Americans celebrate bin Laden’s death, in the Middle East, troublesome questions are being asked, especially in Pakistan. “The U.S. presence is acting as a rallying cry for these people,” argues the political analyst Aasiya Riaz. “You’ll talk to many people who say things will not change in the region until the United States picks up and leaves.” “Bin Laden was a symbol and an illustration of a mind-set and an ideology that lives on,” Tahira Abdullah, a human rights activist in Islamabad, contends.

In the spring of 1630, John Winthrop, newly elected governor of the Massachusetts Bay Colony, reminded his fellow colonists of the need to provide an example to the world of “meekness, gentleness, patience and liberality.” Winthrop hoped “that men shall say of succeeding plantations: the lord make it like that of New England: for we must consider that we shall be as a City upon a Hill, the eyes of all people are upon us.” Americans love to quote Winthrop because they like to believe that they have remained true to his ideals. But, later in that sermon, Winthrop warned: “if we shall deal falsely with our God in this work we have undertaken … We shall shame the faces of many of God’s worthy servants, and cause their prayers to be turned into curses upon us till we be consumed out of the good land whither we are going.” Perhaps for understandable reasons, that part of the sermon is seldom quoted.

Dr Gerard DeGroot is Professor of Modern History at the University of St Andrews in Scotland and author of The Dark Side of the Moon (New York University Press, 2006). Published by International Relations and Security Network (ISN)

ISN Security Watch

The ISN is one of the world's leading open access information and knowledge hubs on IR and security issues, based at ETH Zürich, Switzerland.

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