Rough Justice

‘I do not care whether Osama bin Laden was cowering behind his wife or whether he had a gun. I’m just glad he’s dead’

With painful predictability, the British Left greeted what most of the West greeted as a good thing — Osama bin Laden’s belated embrace of 72 virgins with a kinky thing for mass-murderers — with queasy handwringing. Following on from the Archbishop of Canterbury’s assertion that the killing of an unarmed man left him “uncomfortable” came a cascade of commentary niggling over the legality of state-sponsored assassination, and anguishing that surely the US Navy Seals could have captured the FBI’s most-wanted criminal alive to stand trial.

Let’s leave aside the Obama administration’s hamfisted backtracking about what, exactly, went on in Abbottabad. I do not care whether Osama was cowering behind his wife, whether he had a gun, or whether there was a firefight. I’m just glad he’s dead.

The legalities seem straightforward. A non-state actor yes, but bin Laden and his comrades had declared unequivocal war on the US, and the rules of war applied. Wartime killings are nearly all “extrajudicial”; enemy combatants in the field aren’t put on trial before becoming fair game. Legitimate targets needn’t be brandishing a weapon, either; thus the Seals were not obliged to wait patiently for bin Laden to scrounge his AK from under his bed before they fired. No evidence suggests bin Laden made an effort to surrender. Case closed.

Yet it is worth scrutinising this nitpicking obsession with due process. European liberals are prone to get so het-up about ends not justifying means that they forget all about the ends; the only thing that matters is how you get there. While I’d broadly advocate following legal protocol, I also care about what happens. The European Left is living in a lofty, purist universe while the rest of the world is adhering to the old rules of brute force. Facilitated by Western moral vanity, thugs can easily play the goody-goodies for suckers.

The most dramatic example of Western prissiness being played for all its worth is in the shipping lanes off the coast of Somalia, where pirates are making hundreds of millions of dollars annually from ransoms for hijacked vessels. Earlier this year, the ransom for the chemical container ship Marida Marguerite alone was $5.4 million, and the captured seamen were tortured on board.  The greater part of the western Indian Ocean is now designated “high-risk”, and the threat of ever-escalating Somali piracy could soon paralyse shipping lanes as far as the Suez Canal. Yet even when the culprits are captured, most of these cutthroats are simply let go, because crews are befuddled about jurisdiction and the complex niceties of bringing the pirates to trial.

Here’s a novel idea: shoot them. Is that against the rules? Are ships not allowed to carry armed guards without going through a forbidding rigmarole when they come into port? Then change the rules. Somalis are laughing themselves all the way to the bank, at the entire Western world’s expense. The only measure that will bring an end to these profitable entrepreneurial start-ups is live ammunition. That’s what a Somali pirate understands. People who live by brute force respond to brute force, and not to being lectured that they shouldn’t board boats that don’t belong to them. Only when their colleagues set off for a tanker and never come back will the hijacking begin to ebb. After all, piracy on the high seas is an old problem. What did we used to do? Not help them back into their boats with enough granola bars for the paddle home.

“Just shoot the bastards” as a doctrine should obviously be applied sparingly. Nevertheless, high-minded devotion to due process has repeatedly translated, as the archbishop would say, into justice not being “seen to be done”. Slobodan Milosevic died of natural causes with far better facilities than most three-star London hotels while wrapping the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia around his pinkie for five years. The trial of Liberia’s tyrant Charles Taylor was finally wound up in March after more than three years of burlesque.

Little wonder that Obama clearly preferred the more expedient option in the kill-or-capture mission in Abbottabad. Imagine the circus if bin Laden were put on trial.  Rather than a one-off event that his followers have to get over, a protracted trial would extend the period of Islamist rage and turn the al-Qaeda leader into a fundraising cause célèbre. Imagine the grandstanding in the dock, the European hoo-ha about whether he got the death penalty. Under critical international eyes, American authorities would be running around making sure Osama got dye for his beard and plenty of halal chicken. And with extravagant security a trial would be expensive. Sorry to pull rank, but I was in Manhattan on 9/11, and I think we’ve already paid enough for this jerk.

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