An hour or so after President Obama appeared on television late on the night of May 1 to announce the killing of Osama bin Laden by American forces, a veteran political commentator on one of the cable-news networks mused that the only person he could remember whom Americans had hated as much as they did bin Laden was Adolf Hitler. This notion seems apt: for Americans today, Osama bin Laden symbolized evil.
Every war needs an enemy, and bin Laden, through his campaign of murderous attacks not only in the United States but in the Muslim world as well, earned the hatred and vitriol directed at him. His sudden end, after nearly a decade of searching, caught everyone by surprise. Even now, the story seems improbable. Correct intelligence, punctilious organization, rapid deployment, precise execution, the target eliminated without any American being injured. This is the stuff of Hollywood. In the real world, we attack with drones, too often missing high-value targets and blowing up wedding parties and funerals.
Not this time. This time we hit our target. America is celebrating. We turn out not to be in decline after all: we are still the superpower the rest of the world envies and fears. President Obama boldly greenlighted a high-risk operation, a decision surely not easy to make, and the gamble paid off. True, the blood on the corpse was barely dry before calls began for American withdrawal from Afghanistan: the risk of going to war over a symbol. That debate may soon sharpen. Still, for the moment, the dancing in the streets continues.
And yet, amid the national joy, ethical questions abound. Consider the most obvious one. It appears that the mission all along, despite White House assertions to the contrary, was to kill bin Laden, not capture him—that is, to assassinate him. The Obama administration, like its predecessor, continues to insist that setting out to kill the other side’s leaders pursuant to a very general congressional grant of authority is not the same as assassinating them; but this semantic argument cannot cloak what we have been doing, both with our drones and with our Special Forces. I am not arguing against a policy of assassination, but I do think we should call what we are doing by its proper name.
And there is a deeper ethical dilemma. In the end, we were able to track bin Laden because he communicated only through two couriers believed to be brothers. And what was the source of this vital clue? The intelligence apparently came from detainees imprisoned in secret facilities overseas and subjected to what has been euphemistically called “enhanced” interrogation.
We must not shrink from this possibility, distasteful though we might find it. If the United States is to carry out President Obama’s announced policy of seeking out and eliminating the nation’s enemies, accurate human intelligence is of first importance. Bin Laden was clever enough to avoid all electronic communication, and to build his compound sufficiently close to Islamabad that he fell within its air-defense intercept zone. Electronic monitoring from a distance would not have located him, and a drone attack would have been difficult.
So the information from the detainees was crucial, and we face an uncomfortable irony, both political and ethical. The finest moment of Barack Obama’s presidency to this point came about precisely because of the detention system against which he railed during his campaign. Indeed, the only slip in what was otherwise an exemplary performance on May 1 was the president’s failure to credit his predecessor, who established the controversial mechanism that likely led us to bin Laden’s door. If we are cheering bin Laden’s death, then we are also cheering, whether we like it or not, the methods that brought it about.
Consider another question. Does it seem odd that only four people besides bin Laden died in the assault? It may be that the Qaeda leader had few reliable bodyguards at the end. One can envision the group of insiders thinning, as those around him see others melting away and decide that the others must know something they don’t—and so they vanish, too, leading to more people getting the same signal. Economists call this an information cascade. It is what happens when you see everyone else on the street looking up at the sky and decide that you had better look, too; or when you deduce that because an unfamiliar restaurant is crowded, it must be good.
Remember how Saddam Hussein was found at the end—alone, hiding in a hole? We tend to paint these strongmen as larger than life, but their dominance can vanish in an instant. Once the inner circle becomes more afraid of the hunters than of the hunted, it is inevitable that the barriers will fall.
National-security experts have suggested that producing this sort of cascade is the hidden agenda driving the drone war in Afghanistan and Pakistan. The larger plan—so the theory runs—has been to spread panic among the upper echelons of Al Qaeda, as well as others, elsewhere in the world, who might contemplate attacks on Americans. Fearful for their own lives, those closest to the leader might desert, or even turn betrayer; and as some desert, others will follow.
Attacking A to make him give up B might seem ethically questionable, but in battle such a tactic is not uncommon. During the Iraq War, American forces shelled Baghdad to deter the Republican Guard from retreating into the city. The tactic worked, but civilians died. History teaches that it is not possible to fight a war without making tragic decisions along the way. The time to figure out whether one is willing to accept these considerable moral costs is before making the decision to fight. President Obama’s firm and unapologetic speech represents a willingness to shoulder the moral burden that war implies; in this, too, he follows in his predecessor’s footsteps. This realism about the cost of war is all to the good, but the conversation about right and wrong methods must continue.
Symbols matter. The death of Osama bin Laden solves no tactical problem in either the Afghan war (where the Taliban has begun its annual spring offensive) or the larger war on terror. Nor does his assassination untangle our politics at home: it will not create jobs, close the deficit, or reform Medicare. In short, when one looks at the reality of the practical challenges facing us, bin Laden’s death changes nothing.
But it does give Americans of all political stripes a sense of closure, of satisfaction, of victory. By the time these words appear, we might have tumbled back into our usual cycle of partisan backbiting, the way we swiftly did after 9/11. Or maybe this time we can resist. After all, national unity is a symbol, too—and worth fighting for.
Carter is the William Nelson Cromwell Professor of law at Yale University.