What does the killing of Osama bin Laden say about American Justice?

By | June 6, 2011

In an article entitled “The Revenge Killing of Osama bin Laden” [1] (Tuesday 31 May 2011), Noam Chomsky raises questions regarding both the legality and the justice of the May 1st killing of Osama bin Laden by the United States. He starts by remarking:

The May 1 U.S. attack on Osama bin Laden’s compound violated multiple elementary norms of international law, beginning with the invasion of Pakistani territory.

There appears to have been no attempt to apprehend the unarmed victim, as presumably could have been done by the 79 commandos facing almost no opposition.

President Obama announced that “justice has been done.” Many did not agree – even close allies. British barrister Geoffrey Robertson, who generally supported the operation, nevertheless described Obama’s claim as an “absurdity” that should have been obvious to a former professor of constitutional law.

Chomsky notes the violation of international and Pakistani law:

Pakistani and international law require inquiry “whenever violent death occurs from government or police action,” Robertson points out. Obama undercut that possibility with a “hasty ‘burial at sea’ without a post mortem, as the law requires.”

Chomsky then proceeds to raise questions about the changed policy of President Obama as compared to the way that his predecessor, GW Bush, dealt with the terrorists:

Bush captured suspects and sent them to Guantanamo and other camps, with consequences now well known. Obama’s policy is to kill suspects (along with “collateral damage”).


This raises some interesting moral and philosophical issues. However, one might hesitate raising them in the context of the overwhelmingly popular view that “that the assault had been lawful, legitimate and appropriate in every way,” and that even as an act of vengeance, the killing of Osama was a good thing.

One can understand the desire for revenge, especially by those who had close ones (family, relatives, friends) die as a result of the 9/11 attacks. One can understand the desire that those responsible for that horrendous attack be “brought to justice,” even if “justice” is carried out in the form of a quick killing, by US commandos on the ground or by an air attack (such as the increasingly used armed drones). For many of us all that matters is that the people responsible for the 9/11 attacks pay for what they did on September 11, 2001.

When we question the justice and wisdom of the US response to the terrorist attacks, we hope not to be accused of disloyalty or of being soft on terrorism (but those accusations will surely come). And if we question the justice and wisdom of the killing of Osama bin Laden, we should not be seen as dismissing the need that many Americans felt for some form of ‘justice,’ even in the form of revenge. But if we see ourselves as just and rational, we should not simply ignore a challenge like the one issued by Mr. Chomsky. We should not simply repeat that we’re glad “they got the bastard” and go on with our complacent way thinking that we’re a good and just nation, only doing violence to others when it is necessary. This is a nice thing to think about ourselves, but how does it accord with the facts?

As Chomsky points out, the facts are that there are such things as “international law” and international courts of justice. Another relevant set of facts, as he also points out, is that others who committed what are called crimes against humanity were not summarily assassinated but were in fact brought to trial.

When the time came to consider the fate of men much more steeped in wickedness than Osama bin Laden – namely the Nazi leadership – the British government wanted them hanged within six hours of capture.
“President Truman demurred, citing the conclusion of Justice Robert Jackson (chief prosecutor at the Nuremberg trial) that summary execution …

would not serve the cause of justice. Even today, those charged with acts of genocide are not executed on the spot, but brought to trial. Consider the current case of Ratko Mladic, the onetime Bosnian Serb commander accused of presiding over Europe’s worst massacre since World War II, who was recently captured and held for trial by the tribunal at The Hague, an international court. [2] Even, Saddam Hussein, when captured was not executed but instead turned over so he could be tried by the Iraqis, who eventually executed him.

Do we think that terrorist attacks and threats against the United States are such that they can be treated in a different way to the way other nations behave? Incidentally, different from ways that we expect other nations to behave? Do we think that we have the unique privilege of using our military might and intelligence resources to identify, locate, and kill the culprits? Or are we saying that this way of acting represents justice and the best hope for a better world? Are we setting a precedent that says that, whenever one’s country is attacked and innocent civilians are killed, it is morally and legally acceptable for the targeted country to avenge the attack by killing those held responsible for the attacks?

Let us consider some of the implications of this ‘philosophy’ of international ‘justice.’ In times of war, especially modern wars, military attacks are not limited to attacks on the opposing military. Military attacks, especially aerial attacks, often target cities and civilian centers; even when the primary target is a military target, so-called “collateral damage” results in the deaths and suffering of many non-combatants and civilians (women and children).[3] Suppose that the nation who suffered such attacks acted in the ways analogous to those of the Obama administration: Find the culprits responsible for the violent killings of innocent civilians and kill them on the spot. Our political and military leaders would be fair targets. Would the United States accept such actions by others as just? No, I don’t believe the United States would accept such retaliation.

Do we conclude, then, that we (the US) through the actions of our government are grossly hypocritical? Or do we think that the only thing that matters is military might — the ability to impose our will and our sense “justice” on others — and ignore the role of international courts and international justice? The way we answer such questions will reveal much about our integrity and moral character, not always our strong qualities; although we like to imagine otherwise.

[1] Article can be accessed at


[2] The International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia has charged Bosnian Serb Commander Ratko Moadoc with leading a genocidal campaign against Bosnia’s Muslim and Croat populations, including “direct involvement” in the 1995 killings of nearly 8,000 men and boys in the Muslim enclave of Srebrenica — the worst European massacre since the Holocaust. This was alleged to have happened during the Bosnian ethnic war from 1992 to 1995.

[3] The history of US military action is rife with military action and that of other agencies working for the US in which civilians have been targeted and killed in massive numbers. This does not refer to those cases in which civilians die as a consequence of attacks on military targets (in military jargon, “collateral damage”); but are cases in which the policy of the government and military strategists is to directly attack civilian targets (e.g. massive bombing of and missile attacks on cities).

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