Obama, bin Laden and the law

The United States still has questions to answer on the death of Osama bin Laden, as it no longer controls the shifting narrative. A counter-narrative has emerged from witnesses at the scene, in particular from the terrorist’s 12-year-old daughter, who has said that her father was captured alive at the house in Abbottabad, Pakistan, before being shot.

When Obama took office, it was with a pledge to restore the reputation of the United States in the world, after the thuggish “You’re either with us, or with the terrorists” worldview of George W. Bush. That meant restoring respect for international law.

Bin Laden deserved the death penalty. For many in this country it probably doesn’t matter whether his death was in a summary execution or in a trial, like Saddam Hussein. But — as Robert Redford says in his new film “The Conspirator” about the trial of the woman accused of involvement in the plot to assassinate Abraham Lincoln — America should stand for the rule of law, which makes this country a civilized nation.

Obama, a former law professor, on Sunday night spoke of ordering Bin Laden’s “killing or capture” as a top priority. So did the Navy SEALs have “shoot to kill” orders? The story as it now stands is that SEALs executed an unarmed bin Laden, in front of his family, after some unspecified resistance.

It seems likely that — after Bill Clinton and George Bush — Obama had a “capture or kill” order out for bin Laden. It emerged in April last year that he issued his first such order against the U.S. extremist cleric now based in Yemen, Anwar al-Awlaki.

But one official who has briefed reporters said after the bin Laden killing: "This wasn't an execution. The assessment going into it was that it's highly unlikely that's he's going to be taken alive, but if he decided to lay down his arms, he would have been taken captive."

That narrative has now shifted. Bin Laden was unarmed. He was captured. And according to what we now know, he was then killed in cold blood.

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