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Looking a gift horse in the mouth?

Given the recent capture of Al Qaeda operational leader Khalid Shaikh Mohammed, and the possible capture of two of Osama Bin Laden's sons, and given the rumors that we're "closing in on" Osama Bin Laden, it raises a question: do we want to capture Osama Bin Laden?

Let me first say that I think it likely he's dead. (If he were alive, I would think he would want to brag about it; what better way to thumb his nose at the United States than to turn up safe and sound? For many years he has sent videotapes to Al Jazeera; all of the sudden, he has stopped? A few tapes have arrived, but they've been only hard-to-authenticate audiotapes -- hardly the same thing.) But assume for the sake of argument that he's alive, and that we capture him. What do we do with him?

  1. We could treat him as a prisoner of war. That is, he gets locked up until hostilities are over, and then he gets released. That's essentially what's happening with the Guantanamo Bay prisoners, though for technical reasons -- primarily that we want to interrogate them -- they're not officially called POWs. That's not going to happen, for obvious reasons. Bush vowed to bring him to justice, and I think all Americans expect that.

  2. We could skip the trial, and go right to the execution. It's no more than he deserves, but I can't see that happening. Osama Bin Laden would be the most notorious prisoner on the planet, perhaps in all of human history. Yes, even more than O.J. Simpson. The whole world will be watching; the U.S. government will want to do everything by the book, so that it looks like justice rather than winner's justice.

  3. He could be tried in a military tribunal. It's not quite as bad as executing him without trial, but it's not a good option, either. There's a perception, probably justified, that military tribunals have standards that are more lax than those of "real" trials. The government would be seen as stacking the deck against Bin Laden from the start, and it wouldn't help our image. Assuming our image is something to worry about, of course.

  4. We could try him in a normal American Article III court. Give him a fair trial and then hang him. Show the whole world that we can even respect the rights of a mass murderer like Bin Laden. There are two problems: (1) even given how little Americans read the newspaper, and even given how short American attention spans are, it might be tough to find a jury who hasn't already prejudged Bin Laden's guilt, and (2) if we try Osama Bin Laden in a standard civilian court, how can we possibly justify trying any lesser terrorist figure in a military tribunal? It would knock the legs out of the whole system set up to handle the terrorist situation.

It seems to me that there's no really good answer here. Having him die while resisting arrest would be far more convenient, but even that has its flaws. Aside from likely turning Bin Laden into a martyr, it would also deprive intelligence agencies of their chance to interrogate him. I've left out trickier possibilities, such as claiming he was killed resisting arrest, and then spiriting him away to a secret CIA base where he will be questioned for the rest of his life. I don't know the right answer; I do predict that whatever course of action is chosen will be criticized by Democrats.


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Comments (6)

Partha Mazumdar:

There's a fifth possibility: a special international court could be established for trying bin Laden. I think this is the best option. Something along the Nuremberg Trial lines.

I do predict that whatever course of action is chosen will be criticized by Democrats.

If it's done wrong, I sure hope it's criticized. Silencing decent isn't a good thing... the government can't just anything it wants without accountablity. This isn't, you know, Iraq.


I think David's point is that if you asked 1,000 Democrats today what should be done with Bin Laden when captured, I'd guess at least 25% would choose the same path that the Bush administration ultimately goes down. However, 90% of Democrats will likely criticize him for taking that path. Or something like that.

I think he's probably right. And I'm a Democrat.

The next question is, do you execute him once he's convicted? My guess is we'll never get there, because he'll either die resisting capture or he won't contest the charges.


Partha, you never fail to amaze me. You think that we should have an international court try someone who killed 3000 of our citizens? These are Americans who were killed, not Frenchmen (and don't insult my intelligence by arguing that some of the people killed were not US citizens). You don't think we have the right to try someone who killed Americans on American soil? You can't be serious, can you? When did we give up our sovereignty?

I can just see it. We can have a trial just like the one for Milosevic. It will go on for years and either the French will refuse to vote to convict him, or he will get 10 years in jail. After all, the international community does not believe in the death penalty. It is so uncivilized, you know.

Partha Mazumdar:

You don't think we have the right to try someone who killed Americans on American soil? You can't be serious, can you? When did we give up our sovereignty?

I didn't say that, did I? I'll spare repeating prohibitions about putting words in other people's mouths.

But, you know, a great case could be made that bin Laden not only violated American law but fundemental international law and a trial could return to international law, as Woodrow Wilson said, "the kind of vitality it can only have if it is a real expression of our moral judgment."

Anyway, it would sure beat a military tribunal.


Don't get all self-righteous with me, and don't split hairs. You do not want the US to try bin Laden. You have now said it twice. You think the International community has more moral authority that the US (and if you think I am putting words in your mouth, too bad). Yes, we need the moral authority of Libya, Iran, Iraq, Syria, China, North Korea, Yemen, Sudan, and on and on. After all, they are part of the International community. Oh, those are not the countries you meant? You mean countries like France and Germany. Yes, we need the moral authority of good old back stabbing France. And of course Germany is certainly a paragon of virtue. They are pacifists, you know. (Adolph, Adolph, who? Adolph Hitler? No, the name does not ring a bell. Should I know him?) Please don't make me sick.

There is nothing more fundamental than the right of a country to defend itself. Even you favorite international institution, the UN says so (not that I care what they say). We were attacked, not the international community. If we capture bin Laden then not only do we have the right, but the moral obligation to the relatives of the 3000 people who were killed to try him for those murders.


We were attacked, not the international community.

People in Kenya, Tanzania, the Philippines, Israel, Australia, Tunisia, etc. might disagree with this assessment. I'm not sure I disagree with your main point (I'm not really sure I care, as long as Bin Laden is no longer running his terror network), but there are a number of other countries whose have a right to a piece of Bin Laden.


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