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Was Osama Bin Laden killed in cold blood?

Why the irregularities surrounding the al-Qaeda leader's death matter.

New Statesman
Decline and fall: the demolition of the compound where Osama Bin Laden was killed in Abbottabad, Pakistan. Credit: AFP/Getty Images

There he goes again: the Telegraph's torture apologist Con Coughlin, fresh from blaming the "foolhardy" Rachel Corrie for being crushed to death by an Israeli bulldozer, has now pitched up to explain why irregularities surrounding Osama Bin Laden's death don't matter. In the new book No Easy Day, Mark Owen, a member of the Navy Seal team that killed the al-Qaeda leader, contradicts the official White House statement that Bin Laden may have been reaching for a gun when he was shot. "He hadn’t even prepared a defence. He had no intention of fighting," Owen writes. 

Coughlin downplays the implications of this:

There will, of course, be those among the prosperous global human rights fraternity who will argue that Bin Laden was, in effect, killed unlawfully, and that all those, from the Navy Seals involved in the operation up to President Barack Obama himself, in his capacity as America's commander-in-chief, should face prosecution for their involvement in what amounts to an extrajudicial killing. 

Well, if that's their attitude, bring it on! Given Bin Laden's well-documented involvement in acts of terrorism, they are going to have a tough time trying to find anyone to take their claim seriously.

So Coughlin's response to the suggestion that the US could have engaged in an illegal, extrajudicial killing that day in Pakistan and someone should be held accountable is that . . . er, human rights activists are "prosperous" (?), Bin Laden was a VERY BAD MAN and no one likes him anyway?

He goes on: "Bin Laden made no secret of the fact that he was waging war against the west, and as a man who personally sanctioned the mass murder of thousands of innocent people around the world, the Seal team were well within their rights not to put their own lives at risk so that Bin Laden could be taken alive." 

Which begs the question: in what way would the heavily armed Seal team have been risking their lives, faced with an unarmed man in a sleeveless T-shirt? And who needs international legal protocols when we can just ask Coughlin whether the soldiers were "well within their rights" or not?

Coughlin shrugs off the suggestion that Bin Laden's death could warrant some sympathy with the hoary old saying "He who lives by the gun, dies by the gun." A few years ago, the writer Jason Burke pointed out that "every use of force is another small victory for Bin Laden": according to Burke, Bill Clinton's bombings of Sudan and Afghanistan in 1998 and Bush's later assault on Afghanistan only strengthened al-Qaeda and helped fuel Islamist anger. Burke later wrote in the Guardian that Bin Laden's death was "undoubtedly important" but I think his earlier point still stands: after all, it's not all peace and love in the Middle East.

Al-Qaeda might not be as active today as it was once perceived to have been but there are other groups looking for an excuse to see in the west an unaccountable, conquering villain. That's one reason why international law matters: if it's a war the west is fighting, it must abide by the internationally agreed rules of warfare. Drones, assassinations and the long resistance of the US to acknowledging Guantanamo Bay detainees as prisoners of war suggest a dangerous flexibility of thinking in this respect. Coughlin's exhortations to brush aside such concerns only fuels the attitude that some countries should be able to kill "in cold blood" whenever they choose to, regardless of the consequences. Daft.