Author’s note: I originally wrote this following the killing of Osama bin Laden. Since, we’ve seen the assassinations of many others, including Anwar al-Awlaki, his 16 year old son and most recently Muammar Gaddafi. I find it interesting that so many in the US cheered on the images of Gaddafi’s bloody corpse not even a week after the dedication of a monument to Martin Luther King Jr., one of history’s greatest nonviolent advocates. However, judging by what I observed following the bin Laden killing, I can’t say any of this is a surprise.
Assassination and We Cheered
“USA is at it again, number one in the rankings of Killing Championships. Stealing the Gold in the Murder Olympics, and the crowd goes wild!”
-Chuck D via Twitter
The days following the killing of Osama bin Laden have been a microcosm of everything wrong with the US. President Obama announced US Special Forces assassinated bin Laden and people celebrated as if it was the Super Bowl. Anyone who dared ask questions was labeled a conspiracy nut while the corporate media fanned the flames of already tense relations between the US and Pakistan and asserted that torture deserved praise for the victory.
As I watched the celebrations I couldn’t help but notice something didn’t feel right.
My worries were confirmed by an Al Arabiya report, which said bin Laden’s daughter confirmed his death and said the SEALS captured him alive before shooting him in front of his family. Furthermore, according to the report, witnesses say no one in the house fired at the soldiers, challenging the US military’s account that there was a firefight.
This should set off a few red flags when we consider the “official” story delivered by the White House.
Obama said that following the killing, bin Laden was wrapped in a shroud, prayed over and thrown into the sea, in order to adhere to Muslim tradition. There’s one problem. This wasn’t exactly a Muslim tradition nor was it appropriate for bin Laden’s circumstances.
In fact, when do you remember the US treating the bodies of any combatants in the War on Terror with such respect?
On Tuesday, White House Press Secretary Jay Carney announced that bin Laden was unarmed but “resisted” when he was shot in the eye. The following day, Obama said he would not release photos of the body as to not inflame tensions.
As a black man, it’s hard for me not to be skeptical when I hear an unarmed man was shot for “resisting arrest” because police throughout the country shoot unarmed black men every week.
According to the White House, this was a “capture or kill” mission. Why Navy SEALS couldn’t capture a 53-year-old unarmed man with kidney problems certainly raises some concerns. Furthermore, the hastiness in which the soldiers disposed of the body and the lie told to justify it make you wonder what the administration is trying to hide.
The allegations that releasing a picture of the body would allow followers to build a shrine or would inflame tensions among militants are dubious to say the least. Shrines can be built regardless and a gruesome picture of bin Laden’s corpse can’t be any more offensive than the photographs of the Afghanistan “Kill Team” released in Rolling Stone earlier this year or the illegal detentions, torture, raids and bombings of innocent civilians in the US’s wars and proxy wars in Muslim countries.
Government sponsored assassinations are illegal according to international law and the body certainly would have provided some evidence to what happened in the compound. As of now, the US news is only voicing the side of the US and Pakistan, which has agreed to a deal allowing the US military free reign over the country while the government publicly denies any knowledge.
In addition to evidence from the assassination, the public’s acceptance and celebration has created a frightening precedent for the abuse of presidential power.
Obama has also ordered the assassination of other militant figures like US born cleric Anwar al-Awlaki in the past.
If a president is allowed to order hits on civilians then it opens the door for the White House to target anyone who opposes its policies.
People, even those as despicable as Osama bin Laden, deserve a fair trial where they can be held accountable for their crimes in a court of law. The only testimony we have from bin Laden is a set of videos whose validity has been called into question. Many of these grainy videos have bin Laden curiously operating right handed even though he’s a documented left-hander. This may be enough to satisfy the court of public opinion but it’s far from enough to hold up in a court of law.
Besides adhering to international law, this would also yield much more valuable intelligence. Since we killed him we’ll never know what motives and leads bin Laden could have personally divulged.
Public approval of the assassination has meshed with a corporate media all too willing to squash dissent and intimidate citizens from asking questions. Everyone from the White House to the cable news networks to liberal icon John Stewart have demonized, dismissed and labeled anyone asking questions as a conspiracy theorist.
As a journalist, I’ve been taught to ask questions and seek evidence regardless of the source. Thus, asking legitimate questions as to why we can’t see the body or why the SEALS chose to kill and not capture bin Laden shouldn’t be controversial. The US government has not exactly established enough credibility to have its word taken at face value.
During a debate I had earlier this week, someone went as far as to tell me Obama wouldn’t get on TV at 10:30 at night and lie to us.
Part of me cringed thinking back to the press conference where George W. Bush announced Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction.
Posing tough questions is not necessarily asserting that bin Laden has been dead for years, as speculated since before 9/11, or that he is still alive. It’s an effort to seek evidence from an illegal operation.
Since the body was thrown in the sea there is no evidence of how or if bin Laden “resisted” despite being unarmed. All we have is the account of the SEALS vs. the recollection of witnesses.
While the media has given little time to critical thought, it has chosen to embrace two potentially harmful narratives: the untrustworthy nature of Pakistan and the effectiveness of torture in getting the intelligence that led to the killing of bin Laden.
The US has been conducting drone strikes in Pakistan for years and a 2009 Brookings Institute study found that they kill nine civilians for every insurgent. This and the murder of two Pakistani intelligence agents by CIA operative Raymond Davis, has caused serious tension between the two governments.
Despite the tensions, the US recently gave Pakistan 85 “Raven” drones, according to an Al-Jazeera report.
Keeping in mind that bin Laden came on the scene when the Carter and Reagan administrations chose to arm and train him as well as the rest of the muhajideen to expel the Soviets from Afghanistan in the late 70s and early 80s, this decision to give weapons to a potential enemy sets the table for history to repeat itself. This is all while debates persist over whether to arm rebels in Libya, another group of people who could potentially hold anti-American sentiments.
Reports say that bin Laden’s compound was housed near the Pakistani military academy, which has created more animosity amongst media personalities towards Pakistan for denying any knowledge of bin Laden’s whereabouts.
According to a report in The Nation, Pakistani President “Musharraf’s comments are ironic given that he personally made a deal with Gen. McChrystal to allow US Special Ops Forces to cross into Pakistan from Afghanistan to target bin Laden or other al Qaeda leaders. The so-called ‘hot pursuit’ agreement was predicated on Pakistan’s ability to deny it had given the US forces permission to enter Pakistan.”
The notion that the countries have any irreconcilable hostilities is overblown considering their mutual agreement, which has allowed for numerous civilian deaths and billions of dollars of US aid. Nonetheless, sowing the seeds for more tension doesn’t help the prospects of changing history.
Another disturbing development following the assassination has been conservatives’ praise of torture. Claims that torture led to the tips on bin Laden’s compound are unfounded and in fact, 9/11 mastermind Khalid Sheik Muhammad was reported to have only begun divulging information after the CIA decided to stop waterboarding him.
Torture in overseas prisons like Guantanamo Bay and Bagram gains mostly faulty intelligence because soldiers have imprisoned mostly innocent civilians, who will say anything when the pain gets to be too much.
For example, in Andy Worthington’s “The Guantanamo Files,” Muhmoud al-Muhajid, a Yemeni detainee says, “I never knew Osama bin Laden. When the interrogators kept bothering me with this question, I told them, ‘I saw him five times, three on al-Jazeera, and twice on Yemeni news.’ After this they kept after me really hard. I told them, ‘Ok, I know him, whatever you want. Just give me a break.’ ”
In addition to this, citizens were given incentive to falsely accuse others and sell them to Americans for the price of $5,000 to $10,000, according to Worthington.
To say that this system is efficient and is justified for whatever unfounded proof that it led to the killing of bin Laden is inherently irresponsible and cause for worry anywhere US soldiers are stationed. Such blatant war crimes are never justified and only cause more hostility among those oppressed by the powerful US military.
Amidst all these attempts to capitalize on the killing and the media’s persistence in shaping the narrative, we can’t overlook that the US continues its policy of murder with little discretion. Hundreds of thousands have died since the beginning of the War on Terror. It has bled over a trillion dollars from the US economy that will never go to schools or social services. Abroad, the war has created a system of secret prisons and a climate of fear and resistance. The rights of global citizens have been slowly eroded in the name of vengeance and there’s no end in sight.
Osama bin Laden’s death doesn’t mark the end of an era but the continuance of US blood lust. Our primal urge for revenge was on full display as few questioned the official story or the legality of the killing.
When Americans readily unify around murder one has to ask if we are any better than our supposed enemies. Have we really learned anything?