Crossing the Lexicon
May 14, 2011 · By Emily Schwartz Greco
Did Navy SEALs "assassinate," "murder," or "kill" Osama bin Laden?
Osama bin Laden's demise raises many moral, legal, political, and historical questions. As I've edited and posted a steady stream of commentary about this post-9/11 milestone, one persistent editorial question has touched on all these issues.
Specifically, which verbs are appropriate for conveying what U.S. Special Forces did to carry out their mission after they burst into the al-Qaeda leader's Pakistani compound? Did they simply kill bin Laden? Murder him? Assassinate him? Execute him?
Most Americans consider Osama bin Laden a dangerous and evil man. With so many of us feeling that the world is better off without him, few are questioning the legality of the operation that ended his life. As a former New Yorker who lives in Arlington, VA, it's easy for me to relate. I was already at work in a downtown DC newsroom on September 11, 2001 when those planes flew into the twin towers and the Pentagon, and several years earlier my daily commute required me to change trains underneath the World Trade Center. I still wince whenever I glance at the Manhattan skyline. Yet, as an editor committed both to accuracy and to speaking truth to power, I need to probe this issue carefully.
One of the dictionary definitions of assassination is "to murder (a usually prominent person) by sudden or secret attack often for political reasons." The Saudi-born terrorist certainly was killed at home, and he was killed for reasons that could easily be described as "political." However, Merriam-Webster defines "murder" as "the crime of unlawfully killing a person especially with malice aforethought." That's more problematic because it raises another question: did the U.S. government commit a crime by killing bin Laden?
This is no abstract concept. In the 1970s, Congress delved into the issue following years of CIA covert operations that relied on assassination as a foreign policy tool. (Fidel Castro survived the CIA's attempts to kill him by, among other things, trying to get him to smoke a toxic cigar. The U.S. government was complicit in the killing of Patrice Lumumba, the democratically elected leader of what's now the Democratic Republic of the Congo.) Ultimately, President Gerald Ford, under pressure from lawmakers in the wake of the Church Committee's findings about those CIA activities, barred the unseemly practice with an executive order. Subsequent U.S. presidents renewed the order, except for George W. Bush and Barack Obama, who rejected this restriction in the aftermath of the September 11 terrorist attacks.
This hard question is getting short shrift in the mainstream media. The Washington Post, for example, merely explained that certain killings are "exempt from the assassination law" by quoting legal adviser to the State Department Harold Koh. A former dean of the Yale Law School and a prominent expert on international human rights, Koh claimed in March 2010 that "the use of lawful weapons systems — consistent with the applicable laws of war — for precision targeting of specific high-level belligerent leaders when acting in self-defense or during an armed conflict is not unlawful…And hence does not constitute 'assassination.'"
Human Rights First appears to support Koh's view. Responding to claims by Omar bin Laden that his father's killing violated international law, the group states that "assuming the existence of an armed conflict against al Qaeda, Osama bin Laden was targetable."
Some prominent progressives, meanwhile, have raised strong questions about the framework embraced by Koh and Human Rights First. Marjorie Cohn, a professor at Thomas Jefferson School of Law and a former National Lawyers Guild president, says that "extrajudicial executions are unlawful, even in armed conflict." Noam Chomsky calls the operation that ended bin Laden's life a "political assassination."
Center for Constitutional Rights president Michael Ratner finds that the fluctuating set of "facts" about "the circumstances of bin Laden's killing indicate that the order to the Navy SEALs was to kill, although with all the changes in the story we cannot be sure." It's a key distinction. "Such an order to kill, whether bin Laden or others killed by drones in Pakistan, is likely contrary to international law and could constitute summary execution," Ratner told me in an email.
Referencing the same ambiguities, AlterNet's Joshua Holland helpfully unpacks the competing arguments, variously rooted in international and U.S. domestic law, and concludes:
What's clear is that people on both sides of the debate have had an emotional reaction to bin Laden's death. They're embracing as fact whatever claims support their reactions, and selecting only those sources of law that lend credence to their previously held assumptions.
So, it seems, reasonable people, including progressives, can disagree. What do you think? Please weigh in by commenting below or posting your opinions on the IPS Facebook page.
Emily Schwartz Greco, the managing editor of OtherWords, an Institute for Policy Studies editorial service that provides bold opinions for newspapers and new media.