Saturday, May 7, 2011

The bin Laden Wrap-Up -- Just Another Paragraph in a History Textbook

Christ.  What is it with us?  Is there anything, any single thing anymore that we won't argue over, accuse each other with indignation and outrage, tug at the threads and rumors in some attempt to prove something we already believe and have lost all willingness to re-examine?  It long ago became stupid and inane, and has now become pathological.  So of course, I want to offer my two cents on all matters bin Laden.

The Photos:
Of course you don't release the photos.  Why would you?  What could it possibly accomplish?  If the American leadership is convinced he's dead, then he's DEAD.  Why would they feel some need to prove it?  If there are people who choose to believe he's not really dead, why would photos published by the very same agencies who claimed to take his life in the first place convince them?  All that would be accomplished is that the world would have another reason to talk about America's violence and brutality, as his bullet shattered skull and lifeless eyes became the latest iconic image of a courageous anti-imperialist Muslim martyr.  Similarly, the burial at sea was a wise decision.  With no remains, there remains nothing to fight some endless ideological tug of war over, nothing to hold up as an example of, well, anything.  Once he was confirmed KIA, there was nothing left to fear from him except narrative, so anything that silences that narrative can only be considered positive.

He was executed without due process:
Ok, if you want to take this position, you need to consider what you're really arguing for, or against.  The attack on bin Laden was a military operation, conducted on foreign soil with the very real concern that elements of that host government were assisting him in avoiding capture.  The military operates with a different set of imperatives than law enforcement - law enforcement takes people into custody and confiscates their stuff, the military kills people and breaks their stuff.  So if you truly believe that a serious effort should have been made to arrest, extradite and try bin Laden, then what you are actually saying is you do not believe he was a legitimate military target.  That the FBI, in coordination with State, should have made a formal request through Pakistani government channels to raid the compound and arrest those present.  

Now this can be a perfectly valid argument, and depending upon your views of what appropriate counter terror operations should look like, can be made with consistency and persuasiveness.  I, personally, believe it to be wrong.  It was in this case a method very likely doomed to fail, and although it is certainly true that practical considerations should not be the sole drivers in decisions like this, they must enter into the deliberations.  You have this chance to get the head of al Quaeda, how much are you willing to entrust that opportunity to the good intentions of the Pakistani government?  At the same time, Osama bin Laden is not a cypher.  We know who he is, we know what he is, and there is no argument or debate about the things he has done.  And while I have often argued that it is ludicrous to claim we are at war with a small, trans national group of ideologically driven criminals, that does not in any way preclude them from becoming a military target.  When they are attempting to launch large scale attacks, or even more so, when they have an established history of launching large scale attacks, they become a military target - there is no cohesive argument against attacking them.   But make no mistake - when you order a military attack, you are ordering people killed, not captured. 

And to second guess the people with the guns in the noise and chaos of a night raid is silly.  We'll never know the circumstances that caused that operator to open fire.  We'll never know what he saw, what people were doing, what the lighting was like, even if he knew who he was firing on.  But knowing everything we know about Osama bin Laden, his mindset, his ideology, his undeniable commitment to his cause, it's not in any way a shock that he might go for a gun, choosing to go down fighting rather than meekly surrender.  And while being the shooter who got bin Laden is without doubt a career enhancing outcome, being the shooter who got killed on the raid that got bin Laden is substantially less so.

It seems sometimes that after all the horrific and nefarious decisions the US has made in the decade since 9/11, from detention without due process to torture to warrantless wiretaps to outright aggressive invasions, there are a lot of Americans who have utterly lost faith.  To be sure, there are others who refuse to even consider that anything the US does might be illegal, or even morally wrong.  To my mind, both of these are the conclusions of people who have stopped considering events discretely, who have made up their minds before the events occurred and have lost whatever ability they might have had to consider each event on the merits and the available information as a result of partisan or ideological passions.  It is worthwhile to occasionally consider one's position on matters such as these, to try and determine if it is the result of information or preconceptions.

There are a number of voices being raised now, suggesting that with the demise of bin Laden we can quickly draw down our troop presence in Afghanistan.  My feelings are mixed.  Certainly, anything that can be used to try to encourage the American Political leadership to end that pointless, indefensible charnel house should be used.  It's been many years since anything even approximating a coherent argument for American troops fighting a local insurgency in support of a corrupt despot in a desperately poor nation on the other side of the planet could be made, and if it takes some random historical event to bring about the beginning of the end of that seemingly endless stupidity, I'm all for it.  But as a logical argument goes, it's pretty weak.

Afghanistan is not about al Quaeda.  If it was, that might be the framework for some kind of argument in support of some level of US military action.  But with the 9/11 attacks, al Quaeda was on the run.  In a matter of months, al Quaeda was gone from Afghanistan, indeed, had ceased to be an effective international terror organization.  It was no longer a reason for the American military presence in Afghanistan, it had become the excuse for that presence.  For years, al Quaeda has been in Pakistan, and the US has been engaged in fighting a loose affiliation of Islamists, Nationalists and Tribesmen who are variously opposed to the American occupation of their country and the Pashtun government of Hamid Karzai supported by the foreign occupation.  And since there is no argument to be made that an Afghanistan under a leadership that is hostile to American interests represents a threat to the US so great it requires a hundred thousand troops to combat it that is not simply idiotic and insane on its face, the threat from al Quaeda continues to be offered as the raison de guerre.  That being the case, to whatever extent the death of Osama bin Laden reduces the effectiveness of those ludicrous claims, there is certainly no reason NOT to invoke it again and again.  But in the interest of having a realistic understanding of the dynamics in play, we need to also recognize it as the specious claim it is.

This is an easy one.  Any argument in favor of torture is stupid, dangerous and embarrassing.  But this is also a cautionary tale about the kinds of arguments we want to use AGAINST torture.  Beware the practical argument.  For when we wail "torture doesn't work", we are leaving ourselves open to a disgraceful but logically consistent argument whenever it does "work".  And if we are to be honest, while torture will generate a great deal of false information as the hapless victims desperately searches for the information that will make his tormentors STOP, there will always be cases where that same detainee undergoing torture IS going to provide some important and heretofore unknown bit of intelligence.  Then where do we find ourselves?

No.  We do not torture because it is wrong, it violates our most deeply and strongly held beliefs about human rights and human dignity, and yes, we are willing to suffer whatever consequences come about from our refusal to engage in such inhuman and barbaric methods.  We can never be 100% safe, we cannot even describe what a 100% safe world might look like.  So as long as there will continue to be risk, I'm willing to accept the measure of that risk that results from my unwillingness to violate my own personal and societal values.  You tremble in fear and tell me "the Constitution is not a suicide pact"?  Fine.  I'll remind you there are worse things to be than dead.


  1. No. We do not torture because it is wrong, it violates our most deeply and strongly held beliefs about human rights and human dignity...

    Agreed, but I have to point out that the argument that the due process people are making is also about our strongly held beliefs.

    I consider Osama a dirtbag who killed some friends of mine, and beyond the personal angle, he promotes a cultural misogyny I find repulsive. But no one is going to let me use my personal feelings to order military attacks in other nations.

    Maybe you trust Obama to make these judgments (I'm lose trust in him day after day), but then what about our next president?

    When do we go back to calling them kings?

  2. That's just silly. Democracies can order defensive or retaliatory military attacks without losing their inherent right to govern. To assume that only authoritarian dictatorships can use the military to defend their people and their sovereignty is to fundamentally misunderstand what a nation is and what it's obligations amount to.

    And I addressed your due process argument, but I'll address it again. If you want due process, you have to USE due process. If you recognize and identify a threat, it's perfectly reasonable to use your military assets - but as soon as you do, there IS no due process. You simply kill your enemy. If/when you identify a military target, the very idea of due process is moot - it's an attack. As I said, if you don't believe this was appropriate in this case, THIS is the argument you make - but you're going to have a very hard time making the case that bin Laden wasn't a viable and legitimate military target...

  3. Democracies can order defensive or retaliatory military attacks without losing their inherent right to govern.

    It's not a silly argument, mikey, it's about who makes the decision and how.

    Say the next president isn't a fan of mikey. He says, "I think this guy is a threat, and we can't wait for the mushroom cloud. So yesterday evening I sent out the assassination team."

    From my link:

    It is extremely rare, if not unprecedented, for an American to be approved for targeted killing, officials said.
    The attack does not appear to have killed Mr. Awlaki, the officials said, but may have killed operatives of Al Qaeda's affiliate in Yemen.
    The other people killed "may have" been Al Qaeda operatives. Or they "may not have" been. Who cares?

    Who indeed. Probably relatives of the dead, but certainly not us.

  4. But if it's not silly, it's kind of meaningless. EVERY political system, every system of governance retains (or at least attempts to retain) a monopoly on the use of force. Which is to say that any government in the WORLD, indeed, any government in the history of the world, could decide that mikey was a threat and launch a military attack against him. Comes with the territory.

    I'd like to hear a description of a system of governance that did not include this 'feature'. So, ok, what I suppose you're saying is that you do not trust the current American system of governance to make good, or at least honest decisions around deploying violent solutions. And that's perfectly legitimate. But it's critical to recognize that this complaint is about those who control the military, not the military as an occasionally appropriate solution.

    I keep saying that a military strike on bin Laden was legitimate - I certainly would not agree that a military strike on mikey would be so. But what I'm wondering is if you believe that there is ANY legitimate use of military force, and if you do, then we're not talking about the power of a government to deploy violence, but rather and merely a single decision to do so.

  5. The argument is about who and how the decision is made. Under G.W.Bush, a failure on 9-11 was used to usurp powers that did not belong to the president in the name of "The War On Terror".

    Predictably, under Obama, these powers have been expanded. Not because of who Obama is, or what party he is from, but because that's how these things go. It's why the people who wrote the Constitution tried so hard to make sure this wouldn't happen. (And predictably, the right-wingers who make such a fetish of the "Founders' Intent" don't care, as long as people they don't like are getting blown up.)

    I keep saying that a military strike on bin Laden was legitimate - I certainly would not agree that a military strike on mikey would be so.

    I agree! But where's your protection? Where's the line that says "The president can blow up Bin Laden, because everyone agrees. However, the president can't blow up mikey because..."

    The "because" has been obliterated.

    February 28, 2012: President Sarab Palin has mikey killed, as part of the War On Terror. Friends of mikey say, "hey, wtf, mikey may have terrorized some assholes in some hi-tech firms, but he wasn't a terrorist!

    Spokespeople speaking for the president respond: "We had actionable intelligence that showed mikey was an imminent threat. We cannot reveal this intelligence, however, because it would endanger the troops."

    Who do you think is going to defend you? The Washington Post? The New York Times? The ACLU probably would try, but they are routinely demonized and ignored these days.

    That's my point, mikey.

  6. Your point is both critically important and utterly specious. Because the government will ALWAYS retain the power to attack its enemies. So we are dependent upon a political leadership that is legitimate, and would not choose to murder it's people, even if they are among the political opposition. There is, very simply, no structural solution to your concerns. They are entirely political.

    And I'd agree that we should have serious concerns about our current political leadership. But it remains true that a government led by Dennis Kucinich and Mahatma Ghandi would have these exact same powers, and could, at any time, without accountability, choose to abuse them.

    And this isn't some passing academic argument - it's critical. Because we give our leadership this kind of unfettered power, we need to be able to trust them to use it appropriately. And, frankly, at this point, like most every other population on the planet, we cannot...