John Ling explains why the world’s most wanted terrorist never stood a chance.
Would it have been better if Osama Bin Laden had been captured alive and put on trial?
The short answer is: probably not.
In recent years, two other mass murderers have been given the legal treatment. Captured alive in highly-publicised fashion and put to trial at the Hague. An elaborate exercise designed to highlight their atrocities, discredit their reputations and offer their victims collective catharsis. Simple. Straightforward. Can’t go wrong.
Unfortunately, the outcome has proven to be starkly different. The trials have blossomed into fascist freak shows, and far from destroying the aura of these men, the Hague has only heightened their brand of ultra-nationalism. Their flamboyant performances before television cameras has also strengthened the resolve of their fanatical supporters, fanning the flames of hatred, and the blowback has been considerable.
I am referring, of course, to Slobodan Milosevic and Charles Taylor. Butchers responsible for wide swathes of genocide in both the former Yugoslavia and Liberia. The impetus on the international community to arrest them and put them on trial has been great, but what of the results? The consequences?
Most tellingly, both the former Yugoslavia and Liberia are no more stable today than they were prior to the trials. The legal narrative, in fact, has been hijacked and distorted. Many right-wing Serbians and Liberians feel aggrieved by what they see as a racist Hague and have rallied behind their persecuted leaders. Poison continues to bloom; murderous legends continue to endure; the grotesque circus rolls on.
The Obama administration has no doubt analyzed the possible blowback and have gone for the lesser evil: denying Osama bin Laden a platform by which to gloat and rave and inspire. I have no doubt that if such a platform had been provided, it would ended being far more damaging than the Taylor and Milosevic trials put together.
What, then, about the decision by America to hastily bury Bin Laden at sea? Again, it was a delicate judgment call. Contrary to what most believe, having the body of a war criminal buried at sea is not at all uncommon. Israel did the same after the execution of Adolf Eichmann, the man primarily responsible for the Holocaust death camps. The reason then, is just as relevant as the reason now: to sever the venomous narrative and deny fanatics a land-based shrine.
At the moment, America is still at war, and in war, public circus trials are a luxury. Even if the American operators had captured Bin Laden alive, the more common practice would have been to hold a closed-door court-martial, followed by a summary execution.
However, President Obama made an executive decision — he simply skipped the court-martial and went straight for the execution. And who could blame him? It’s barely ten years since 9/11. Memories are still raw and emotions are frayed. After two protracted and inconclusive engagements in Iraq and Afghanistan, Americans badly needed a slam dunk. Bin Laden, naturally enough, was it.
John Ling is a Malaysian thriller writer based in New Zealand. You can find out more about him at johnling.net