Michael Wymbs, A retired construction worker from New Jersey, stood silently in a light drizzle near Ground Zero. He and his brother were holding a banner that said, ‘Thank you, Mr President.’ “I wanted to show my support for the President, who takes a lot of criticism, but deserves a lot of credit for taking such a risk and pulling it off,” said Wymbs, who had helped in the 9/11 relief efforts in 2001.
The news of Osama bin Laden’s demise had hit the US the previous evening. Since then, a steady stream of people had found its way to the site of the fallen twin towers in Lower Manhattan. In a historic moment on 1 May that will probably be written into a couple of Hollywood films, President Barack Obama told the world that US commandos had killed the Al-Qaida leader in Abbottabad, Pakistan. “Yet, as a country, we will never tolerate our security being threatened, nor stand idly by when our people have been killed. We will be relentless in defence of our citizens and our friends and allies. We will be true to the values that make us who we are. And on nights like this one, we can say to those families who have lost loved ones to Al-Qaida’s terror: Justice has been done,” Obama said.
It led to a spontaneous burst of emotion in front of the White House and in New York. Televised pundits wasted no time in raising questions. Among the biggest: did Bin Laden’s death boost Obama’s chances at the next election?
That Osama’s death boosted Obama’s popularity was confirmed by opinion polls. Whether it would last long enough to assure a second term for him was not so obvious. According to Professor Bruce Buchanan of the University of Texas, who specialises in presidential politics, had the operation taken place closer to the election, the episode may have given Obama’s chances a fillip. But there’s almost a year-and-a-half to go. He pointed out that by the time the 1980 election rolled around, for example, President Jimmy Carter’s achievement of forging an Egyptian-Israeli peace deal had been overtaken by events.
That Obama was an effective leader on foreign policy was now clear, experts said, but the presidential race would be dominated by economic and domestic issues. Overall, the reaction to Bin Laden’s death has largely been bipartisan. Former President George Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney congratulated Obama alongwith the US intelligence and armed forces. “The fight against terror goes on,” the former president added, “but tonight America has sent an unmistakable message: no matter how long it takes, justice will be done.” Other Republican leaders, even those who are emerging as contenders for the next race, made similar statements, altering Bush’s order of honour, though. “God bless all the brave men and women in our military and our intelligence services who contributed to carrying out the successful mission to bring Bin Laden to justice,” said former Alaska Governor Sarah Palin.
Donald Trump, a business magnate who is considering running in the 2012 election, was more forthcoming. “I want to personally congratulate President Obama and the men and women of the Armed Forces for a job well done,” said the man who’d been raising questions about where Obama was born just before Abottabad. He has had to hunker down.
To guarantee a win for Obama, some quipped, Palin and Trump should be running mates as challengers.
While Obama’s future evoked much punditry, the legality of the operation was wrung far less as an issue. That ‘justice’ had been done was widely accepted in the US, along with the argument that the raid was an act of national self-defence. “I think the president said it best when he said that justice had been done,” said Rick Nelson, director, Homeland Security and Counterterrorism Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. “What about the human rights of the 3,000 people who were killed?”
Not that there was no concern at all for the human rights of Pakistanis killed in legally-questionable drone attacks, which have escalated under Obama. Philip Alston, a blunt New York University professor who served as the UN Special Rapporteur on arbitrary executions, said that drone attacks could only be legal in an “armed conflict”, but it wasn’t clear whether the area bordering Afghanistan was a battle zone or whether the targets were combatants or even civilians engaged in combat.
The most scathing reaction to the Abottabad operation, however, came from Noam Chomsky, professor at the MIT Department of Linguistics and Philosophy. ‘We might ask ourselves how we would be reacting if Iraqi commandos landed at George W Bush’s compound, assassinated him, and dumped his body in the Atlantic,’ Chomsky wrote in Guernica, ‘Uncontroversially, his crimes vastly exceed bin Laden’s, and he is not a “suspect” but uncontroversially the “decider” who gave the orders to commit the “supreme international crime differing only from other war crimes in that it contains within itself the accumulated evil of the whole” (quoting the Nuremberg Tribunal) for which Nazi criminals were hanged: the hundreds of thousands of deaths, millions of refugees, destruction of much of the country, the bitter sectarian conflict that has now spread to the rest of the region.’ Chomsky argued that the operation violated international law because there was no attempt by US commandos, facing virtually no opposition except from Bin Laden’s wives, to apprehend the ‘suspect’ and bring him to trial.
In response, the writer Christopher Hitchens rebuked Chomsky for referring to Bin Laden as a ‘suspect’ in an article for Slate: ‘In short, we do not know who organized the attacks of 9/11, or any other related assaults, though it would be a credulous fool who swallowed the (unsupported) word of Osama Bin Laden that his group was the one responsible. An attempt to kidnap or murder an ex-president of the United States (and presumably, by extension, the sitting one) would be as legally justified as the hit on Abbottabad. And America is an incarnation of the Third Reich that doesn’t even conceal its genocidal methods and aspirations. This is the sum total of what has been learned by the guru of the left in the last decade.’ If Hitchens needed another target for his scorn, Bin Laden’s sons, in a statement published by The New York Times on 10 May, demanded an explanation for why their father was killed without a trial. ‘We maintain that arbitrary killing is not a solution to political problems,’ they wrote, adding that ‘justice must be seen to be done.’
Human rights groups and the UN have asked for more details of the operation to determine whether the US violated international law. “We simply don’t have enough information to determine that at this point,” said Andrea Prasow, senior counsel, terrorism and counterterrorism, at Human Rights Watch. “The US government must give US citizens and the world a detailed explanation of the legal rational behind the operation.” She added that even if Abbottabad is viewed as a conflict zone, the US has to produce evidence to prove that Bin Laden was a direct participant in hostilities. “If there is no clear articulation of the legal rational, then the next government that wants to do this will say that the US did it and so we can too,” she said.
Human rights groups are also alarmed about Section 1304 of the US National Defense Authorization Act 2012, by which ‘the US is engaged in an armed conflict with al-Qaeda, the Taliban, and associated forces and that those entities continue to pose a threat to the US’.
Other observers have warned that the term ‘associated forces’ widens the scope of use of force by the US in an unprecedented manner—much beyond Al-Qaida and the Taliban. In an open letter to the House Committee on Armed Services, dated 9 May, 23 rights and advocacy groups said the new legislation, ‘appears to be stating that the US is at war wherever terrorism suspects reside, regardless of whether there is any danger to the US’. The groups warned that the proposed declaration would empower the US President to authorise the use of military force in Somalia, Iran, Yemen and other countries where terror suspects reside.
Such legislation would also ease aggressive US operations in Pakistan, which it cannot abandon, as analysts said, without risking its Afghan interests and perhaps even the loss of Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal to extremists. As for Al-Qaida, that it would survive weakened without Osama was an expectation widely shared. And that the war on terror was far from over. Osama’s death was historic alright, but how historic would be for historians of the future to say.