Enough time has now elapsed to avoid the gut reaction to the killing of Osama bin Laden and try to give a civilised response to the event. A recent similarly motivated raid, with quite a different outcome, the capture of Ratko Mladic, also helps provide perspective for the bin Laden process.
The comparison made at the time was with, of course, Hitler. What if, is the argument, what if in, say, 1940, a team of British commandos could have parachuted into Germany and killed Hitler? No arguments there, eh? Quite clearly and unambiguously a good thing. Well, probably, yes, I suppose, maybe. Those what ifs of history are always difficult. What if such a raid had outraged the German people, brought them even more solidly in line behind, say, Goebbels, or any of the other evil bastards in that sorry crew? What if having their head of state killed had made the German nation stronger and the repressions of the SS even more extreme?
I mean in 1944 I have no doubt, really, that if von Stauffenberg and his brave band of brothers had succeeded in exploding Hitler then a great deal of the misery of the next 12 months would have been avoided, and the post war world would have been a very different place. A coup from inside a state seems to me a very different proposition to an assassination from outside, no matter who the assassinee is.
But there is more to say. In the case of Hitler the evidence for his crimes is unambiguous, the effects of his evil ideology and warped personality beyond debate. He is the personification of evil in any argument over these last 70 years or so. And yet millions of Germans, undoubtedly the great majority, loved him and followed him until right up to the end. There were many people in other countries (including among the British upper classes) who greatly admired his ideas. If he was coming into prominence now the media would undoubtedly do a he said-she said two sides to the argument story on him. And, speaking of today, there are many people in western societies who call themselves neo-nazis and follow the philosophy of the master race, and others who use holocaust denial as a way of clearing what they see as an unjust slur on Hitler’s name.
So the idea that assassinating Hitler would have been unambiguously welcomed, no questions asked, is the result of historical tunnel vision I’m afraid.
Which raises the larger point. Who decides? On the one hand there has yet to be a monster anywhere in the world at any time who hasn’t had his (or occasionally her) rabid band of supporters, often whole countries of supporters – which people get to decide that those supporters are wrong? Hitler, Stalin, Pol Pot, Franco, Idi Amin, Milosevic, Duvallier, Mugabe, Pinochet, you name the vicious swine who my readers would agree was beyond the pale and deserved assassination if such could be arranged, and I’ll show you tens of thousands of cheering supporters who would have laid down their lives for said swine and would weep bitter tears at his death.
And on the other hand there are few if any leaders who most if not all of us would agree were a “Good Thing” who some powers that be didn’t want removed, jailed, tortured, or yes, assassinated, because they were on the “wrong” (specifically the left) side of the political fence. Were in the way of big American or British business interests usually. Were seen as getting in the way of the neoconservative end of history. Were leaders of independence movements trying to break away from the empire of the day. Were more interested in feeding the poor than in feeding raw materials to foreign mining companies.
There are too many to list here, and my readers will be familiar with many of the names. But one jumped out at me when I began thinking about this. Partly, but not only, because of the coincidence of dates. Osama bin Laden was killed in revenge for September 11, hard to see it any other way. But there is another assassination associated with America and September 11 from nearly 40 years ago. Salvator Allende was elected to the Chilean presidency by the people in a free and fair election. He happened to be, however, a socialist. In American eyes such politics put him into the evil category immediately, and further (I think) they couldn’t allow a left-wing leader to be successful in South America – might lead to all sorts of inappropriate thoughts among the peasants. So they had him killed – either organised by the CIA with a local hand on the trigger or directly by a CIA operative, makes no difference. Here was someone perceived as being an enemy of America and they sent in a team and had him killed, brought in the long reign of the corporate-friendly and mass killer of socialists the appalling Pinochet (much loved by the right-wing in the Chilean public, and by foreign leaders like Thatcher). It was a pattern endlessly repeated around the world after the war by America (as it had been in the previous 100 years by Britain).
So it seems to me that if you say yes to the killing of bin Laden then you are also in effect saying yes to the killing of Salvator Allende. If not (and I’m sure you are not) then how do you make a distinction?
The impossibility of making a distinction seems to me to underlie the reason why we have an International Court in the Hague.
Not only does this make it clear that having enthusiastic followers (as bin Laden had, as Mladic has) doesn’t mean you are a good person. But it also means that killing people like Allende couldn’t possibly be defended (none of the left-wing leaders that America has had killed over the years could possibly have been brought to trial on anything).
So on balance? I think bin Laden should now be in a jail in the Hague and be talking to lawyers. There is a reason why the rule of law was arguably the most important element in creating civilised societies. And we were, all of us in the west, last time I looked, still civilised societies.