Was the Assassination of Osama bin Laden Illegal?

Military, Politics

If Facebook and Twitter are any indication, people in America are definitely of two minds when it comes to whether we should be celebrating Osama bin Laden’s death like it’s a new holiday or solemnly questioning the morality of killing another human being.

Justified or not, the question that is coming up now that the initial glee (or unease) has worn off is whether or not the killing was even legal, especially in light of fact that bin Laden was apparently unarmed when Navy SEALs shot him. Most of us were taught in school that assassinating someone in cold blood is against the law, even if he is a raging bad guy. The Nazis got tried in court, after all, and they were responsible for far more deaths than bin Laden. So, did President Obama fudge the law by allowing Navy SEALs to kill bin Laden?

Assassination Law, Then and Now

In 1976, President Ford signed a law banning political killings. It stated that “no employee of the United States Government shall engage in, or conspire to engage in, political assassination.” Presidents Carter and Reagan also signed similar orders while in office, all of which directly prohibited targeted killing.

In 1998, based on intelligence regarding the threat of Al Qaeda, President Clinton authorized the CIA to assassinate individual terrorists. After 9/11, President Bush widened the parameters of that authorization and specified certain targets, including Osama bin Laden. At that point in time, still in shock over the attacks on the World Trade Center, few Americans were of a mind to argue that killing any terrorist, bin Laden in particular, was unjust.

It’s Tricky

So, if Clinton and Bush both gave the thumbs up to putting terrorists to death in the case of war or self-defense, killing bin Laden was perfectly legal, right? Well, yes and no. First of all, there is the matter of what other governments think. Despite the opinions of some Americans, the U.S. does not get to unilaterally make rules about the citizens of other nations. Not only that, but the killing was carried out covertly and on foreign soil, without the knowledge or permission of Pakistan. Most nations don’t look very kindly on other governments coming in like ninjas and shooting up the place, even if the target is an international criminal. The fact that he was apparently unarmed also has compelled some to ask why he wasn’t taken into custody to be tried, epic complexity of that scenario notwithstanding.

What the Attorney General Says

American legal boss, Attorney General Eric Holder, maintains that it was absolutely a legal killing because of bin Laden’s admission of guilt, citing the killing as an act of “national self defense.” Human rights organizations and legal experts both here and around the world are taking a wait-and-see approach until more information about the event comes to light, but some have stated that the legality of the operation is questionable and bin Laden should have been allowed due process of law.

Implications for Future Missions

Pakistan is apparently a little irked as well, though they seem to understand that any defense of bin Laden would create an international brouhaha. Like a neighbor who doesn’t appreciate the pruning we performed on the parts of his tree spanning the property line, the Pakistani government clearly would like us to keep our proverbial pruners to ourselves in the future, stating, “This event of unauthorized unilateral action cannot be taken as a rule. The Government of Pakistan further affirms that such an event shall not serve as a future precedent for any state, including the U.S.” In other words, it was okay this once for political reasons, but don’t make it a habit.

According to U.S. officials, the only way to take bin Laden into custody safely would have been if he were naked, adding that there was no way for the Navy SEALs to know whether he was concealing a weapon or explosive. And though he turned out to be unarmed, he did resist, further justifying the actions of the SEALs carrying out the mission. It’s doubtful that any real consequences will ever be brought against the U.S. government for the killing. Though iffy from a very rigid, black-and-white standpoint, the fact is that much of the world is relieved he’s gone. We can all hope that many, many lives will be spared with the taking of his.