Great Power arrogance and the murder of Bin Laden. Photo: Pete Souza/ White House

Great Power arrogance and the murder of Bin Laden

In the past 48 hours American accounts of Bin Laden’s death have come under intense scrutiny following White House admissions that early official reports claiming Bin Laden had been armed and cowered behind his wife during the assault were false. The past few days have revealed flaw after flaw in the White House reporting of the killing of Bin Laden. The US Government’s message has been full of contradictions from start to finish.

Barack Obama annoucing Osama mission. Photo: Pete Souza/ White HouseBarack Obama annoucing Osama mission. Photo: Pete Souza/ White HouseFresh details revealed by the White House on Tuesday contradicted the earlier version of the events leading to the death of the world’s most wanted man. US officials initially stated that he had put up a fight and was shot by the Seal 6 team in the course of a fire fight. They also suggested he used one of his wives as a human shield. Neither of these statements turned out to be true.

Bin Laden’s wife, earlier said to have been killed, in fact survived and is currently in Pakistani custody. Pakistani television station Geo published a copy of her passport, naming her as Yemeni citizen Amal Ahmed Abdel Fatteh. The Pakistanis have not yet issued any statement from her, but when it does it will make interesting reading.

Bin Laden was indeed guilty of many crimes and atrocities. That is sufficient for history to pass judgment on him. But there is nothing in the record to suggest that he was a coward. Yet the White House immediately put in circulation the accusation that he was not only armed, but hiding behind a wife, who was being used as a human shield. By this crude device White House spokesman John Brennan intended to mock Bin Laden and discredit him as being unmanly and cowardly. Of all the lies of the week, this was by far the grossest and most despicable.

In my article, The assassination of Bin Laden – Terrorism and state terrorism, I questioned the official version about the alleged fire fight, which did not ring true. I wrote the following: The leader of al-Qaeda was clearly made of sterner stuff than Saddam Hussein, and it is highly likely that he would refuse to surrender and fight to the end. What would he gain by surrendering himself to the same fate as Saddam? But if he was surprised in his bed in the middle of the night, was armed resistance possible? In any case, it is clear that his assailants gave him no opportunity to surrender.”

On the same day these lines were published, the White House issued a statement retracting the story of a fire fight. The real sequence of events seems to have been as follows. The assassination squad burst into Bin Laden’s bedroom in the early hours of the morning. In what appears to have been a desperate attempt to defend her husband, his wife rushed towards the Special Forces, who shot her in the leg. They then shot him in the head and chest. It is admitted that neither Bin Laden nor his wife were armed, and it is impossible to argue that either of them presented any danger to the heavily armed men who confronted them.

President Obama has praised the actions of these “heroes”. But there is very little heroism involved in entering a bedroom in the dead of night, shooting dead an unarmed man and wounding his wife. Moreover, it appears that these events were witnessed by Bin Laden’s twelve year old daughter who apparently says that they kept Bin Laden alive for ten minutes before shooting him. We do not know if this is true, but here we see the real ruthless face of US imperialism. This was no act of heroism but a cold-blooded and premeditated assassination.

President Barack Obama insists the Navy Seals would have detained him if they could have, but that is a lie. As I pointed out yesterday, this was the work of a hit squad with clear instructions to liquidate its victim, who was to be given no chance to surrender. There were to be no famous last words to go down in history. They silenced him by blasting him before he could say anything, especially if that was something like: “I surrender”.

“Self defence”?

The fact is that the White House spokesmen have lied in their teeth from the start about the whole business. That, in itself, should not be a problem, since it is the business of diplomats (and of bourgeois governments in general) to lie and deceive the people. But a liar should be intelligent enough to tell lies that are plausible, and once having told a lie, to stick to it consistently. A liar who changes his story every twenty four hours and contradicts himself at every step, will soon find that nobody believes anything he says.

The whole point of sending a SEAL hit squad, rather than sending a drone or a B2 to bomb the compound, was to be certain that the target was indeed Bin Laden. The administration claims to have DNA evidence, facial recognition evidence and photographic evidence. But they have not released anything. Instead the message is: “Trust me, I’m Obama”. That message may have some effect in the USA, where many people were anxious for news of the death of the man behind 9/11. But it will not be enough to silence the doubts of many people in Pakistan and throughout the world, especially in the light of all the misinformation that has been put out in recent days.

From the strictly military point of view, the operation was both audacious and meticulous in its planning and execution. Its aim was very clear: the physical liquidation of Bin Laden. However, this is not merely a military matter. It is profoundly political. And in politics, psychology and timing are decisive. From this point of view, the Americans have displayed their habitual clumsiness and lack of basic diplomatic skills. It is the business of diplomacy to hide things, to blur the picture, and to confuse public opinion about its real aims. However, the deliberate concealment of the facts is one thing, but confusion and hesitation is quite another.

The Special Forces did their work well according to their aims and standards. But there are always some disadvantages. It seems they made such a good job of smashing their victim’s face that it was quite unrecognisable. The problem is that people in the region are now saying that he had not been killed at all. The administration was considering whether to release the photos of the body to counter such claims. But this could do more harm than good. It might outrage public opinion, especially in the Islamic world: “There are sensitivities about the appropriateness,” said spokesman Jay Carney. “It is fair to say it is a gruesome photograph.”

It took the White House nearly three days to decide not to release the photographs of Bin Laden’s body. This made the administration look indecisive and vacillating. This is hardly surprising because it is indeed indecisive and vacillating. Worse still, it made it appear that it had something to hide. And in fact, it has plenty to hide. The refusal to issue the photos will fuel the conspiracy theories. And it was doubly stupid because in the age of Internet the pictures will surely be leaked anyway. The recent experience of Wikileaks ought to have taught them that much. So they will end up with the worst of all worlds. To quote Talleyrand, “It’s worse than a crime; it’s a mistake.”

The first lie was to say that the hit squad sent after the leader of al-Qaeda “could have taken him alive if he had surrendered.” It is plain for all to see that Bin Laden was given no opportunity to surrender, but was gunned down without any preliminary niceties. This action was later justified on the grounds of “self defence”. It was first stated that he was killed while offering armed resistance in a “fire fight”. This was such a blatant lie that they were compelled to retract the very next day. There was no fire fight and Bin Laden was unarmed. No details have been given as to what kind of “resistance” he put up, nor is it clear how an unarmed man in his nightshirt could present any kind of threat to a squad of heavily armed men.

Realizing the pathetic weakness of this argument, they later changed it again. It was indeed a case of self-defence, but of national self defence. The unarmed man in a nightshirt did not present a threat to the hit squad, but he did represent a threat to the American Nation. What is meant by this? That Bin Laden was behind the events of 9/11 and other terrorist acts in the past, and may possibly carry out similar operations in the future. These are very serious accusations and would deserve the heaviest punishment. But we are dealing here with crimes that have already taken place in the past, or which may take place in the future. However, in what way the man in a nightshirt represented a “real and present danger” to the American Nation on the night of 2 May is not at all clear.

Like an eel wriggling on a hook, the White House spokesman tries to embellish the argument about self-defence still further: Bin Laden was an “enemy commander” and in war (remember the “war on terror”) an army in the field is entitled to shoot the commander of the enemy forces. Here we enter into the rules of engagement, which are quite clear and cannot be used to justify what was done to Bin Laden. In the course of a battle, an army would be entitled to kill not just the enemy commander but any other armed combatant on the other side. (Let us remind ourselves that the business of war is to kill people). But even in ancient times it was not considered permissible to kill an enemy who was surrendering, and still less one that was unarmed and not in a combat situation. The latter is not generally known as warfare but rather as murder.

The Daily Telegraph – a right wing Conservative paper – today criticised the US administration for not telling the truth about this mission, which was: “It was a kill mission and no one should have been afraid to admit that. Bin Laden was a dead man as soon as the SEAL Team landed. There’s nothing wrong with that but the Obama administration should have been honest about it rather than spinning tales about bin Laden having a gun, reaching for a gun (the latest) and resisting (without saying how he resisted).”

Was justice done?

Barack Obama called the murder of Bin laden “justice”. But justice has traditionally meant due process of law, where even a person accused of the most heinous crime is entitled to appear before a court, to have a hearing before a judge and jury, with a lawyer to conduct his defence, in other words, a fair trial. Bin Laden had no trial. He was just gunned down. His judge and jury were sitting thousands of miles away watching the sentence being carried out. The verdict was decided in advance.

If he was indeed guilty of these crimes, why not bring him back to the USA and put him on trial? The American legal system is highly efficient and has at its disposal the most severe punishments for criminals, including the death penalty. It would have been a simple matter to put him on a helicopter and deliver him up to the tender mercies of an American judge. Instead the members of the SEAL Team acted as judge, jury and executioner.

From the standpoint of the “war against terror”, the capture of Bin Laden (which was certainly possible) would have been more advantageous because of the intelligence that could have been gleaned from interrogating him and his couriers (they were also killed). The reason the US establishment didn’t want him alive is because a trial (which would have to be in public) would have revealed some very uncomfortable issues concerning the past links between Bin Laden, the CIA and Pakistani Intelligence. The fact is that the Americans could not allow Bin Laden to appear before a court of law, where he could have revealed damaging information about his contacts with the CIA during its covert war against the Soviet army in Afghanistan, or his relations with Prince Turki, Saudi Arabia’s head of intelligence.

State terrorism

Not content with justifying murder, the US authorities then proceed to justify the use of torture in interrogating prisoners. They suggest that what led to the discovery of Bin Laden’s whereabouts was the use of “enhanced interrogation techniques” (that is, torture), which is said to have yielded important information, including information extracted from prisoners in Guantanamo. This completely exposes the hollowness of Obama’s alleged opposition to torture and Guantanamo Bay, which remains open despite all the promises to close it.

To justify these things we will be informed that Bin Laden was a mass murderer and therefore deserves no sympathy. We have no sympathy with Bin Laden and his methods. But the methods that were used in this case are terrorist methods, neither more nor less. If this is acceptable, then what is left of the alleged moral superiority of democracy and western civilization? What about all the propaganda about Christian values and humanitarianism? The whole argument is that “western democracies” do not use the same methods as the terrorists and therefore are better than they.

The only difference is that one kind of terrorism is waged by the state, which is supposed to be anointed with Holy oil. This kind of terrorism is, like the Virgin Mary, without blame or blemish. It is pure terror, just terror, righteous terror, terror that requires no justification. This is the kind of terror that enables an American President to drop atom bombs on Japan and argue that it is a humanitarian method aimed at “saving (American) lives,” although in fact Japan was already on its knees and suing for peace.

It enabled other US Presidents to wage a criminal and dirty war in Vietnam, including showering civilians with toxic chemicals. Others were responsible for invading Cuba and installing bloody dictatorships in Brazil, Chile, Argentina, Uruguay, Guatemala and other countries. The invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan were also acts of state terror, which have been responsible for the deaths of hundreds of thousands of people. These actions cannot be justified by constantly referring to the Twin Towers and other terrorist atrocities committed by al-Qaeda. These were criminal acts, but compared to the ones just mentioned, they pale into insignificance.

Moral hypocrisy

In 17th century England those convicted of piracy were chained to the banks of the River Thames at low tide and left to drown as the waters rose above their necks. On the opposite bank of the river there was a tavern (it still exists) where the judge sat comfortably on the balcony, sipping a glass of port as he watched the wretched men sink beneath the muddy water in their final death struggle. Later methods were refined to a simple hanging, which was practiced in public as a cheap form of popular entertainment.

In the twenty first century we consider ourselves far superior to these barbarities. Yet the repulsive mask of moral hypocrisy slipped last Sunday night, when a most extraordinary event occurred. It has always been a tradition of Mafia gangs (and of states that model themselves on the Mafia) that the Godfather, the Capo, never dirties his hands with bloodshed and violence. He remains discretely in the shadows, while the real professionals in the art of killing do the dirty work on his behalf.

Awaiting updates on bin Laden. Photo: Pete Souza/ White HouseAwaiting updates on bin Laden. Photo: Pete Souza/ White HouseOne of the more gruesome expressions of hypocrisy is the way in which war and slaughter have been sanitised by the media. Even the English language has been twisted and emasculated to conceal the true meaning of what is being described. Thus, instead of being killed, people are “taken out”. There are no civilian casualties but only “collateral damage”. And my (particular favourite), if you are blown to smithereens by mistake, you can console yourself by the thought that you are merely the victim of “friendly fire” (!). In this way, war becomes debased into a mere spectacle, a show, like the gladiatorial contests of old.

Last Sunday this tendency reached a new low when the murderous onslaught on Bin Laden’s last refuge was watched by Obama and all his entourage, gathered around a computer screen. It was as if they were watching a show on television, like a macabre version of what is called “reality TV”. As the professional assassins carried out their bloody work, they transmitted each gory detail to this highly appreciative audience in the comfort and safety of the White House. It is a pity this glorious occasion was not filmed (at any rate no recording of it has been made available for public inspection). But one can form a good idea of what it was like from the photos.

Obama seems absorbed, like a man watching a game of football, anxiously waiting for the victory of his favourite team. The hard men of the military and intelligence services look on stony faced, no doubt admiring the expertise of their professional killers, just as one would admire the skills of a baseball player. At one point Hilary Clinton is shown raising her hands to cover her face, which betrays an expression of horror. One can only imagine the images that produced such a reaction. Finally, the moment has arrived. Obama’s team have scored a goal. “We got him”, was the President’s only comment as agents blew Bin Laden’s head off.

Tension between the USA and Pakistan

The relations between Pakistan and the US have become extremely tense in the wake of Osama Bin Laden’s killing. Inside Pakistan, media coverage has focused on whether Pakistan’s government or military had advance knowledge of the raid – a sensitive issue given widespread anti-American sentiment and worries about breaches of sovereignty. The Pakistani foreign ministry issued a sharply-worded statement condemning the raid on Bin Laden’s house as an “unauthorised unilateral action”, and warned that it “would not be tolerated in future”.

That this was indeed a blatant violation of Pakistan’s sovereignty is self-evident. But it is not as if it was the only case. The fact is that Pakistan’s sovereignty has been systematically violated by the USA in recent years. The CIA’s operatives drive their vehicles through the streets of Lahore and Karachi with blacked out windows. The Americans lecture the government of Islamabad constantly like a headmaster addressing an unruly pupil. The World Bank and the IMF tells the government how to spend its money. US drones are bombing and killing people in Pakistan almost every day.

There have also been questions about how US helicopters managed to enter Pakistani airspace, conduct a violent raid lasting 40 minutes, then return unhindered to Afghanistan. But if the Americans felt able to conduct this mission without even bothering to inform the Pakistani authorities, it is only because for years they have become accustomed to treating Pakistan as their own backyard. The PPP government is even more servile than others in its attitude to Washington.

CIA chief Leon Panetta said Pakistan was not informed of the assault because US officials feared the al-Qaida leader could have been warned in advance. “It was decided that any effort to work with the Pakistanis could jeopardise the mission. They might alert the targets,” he told Time magazine. These words are significant. Any contact with Pakistanis includes any contacts with the heads of the army, Intelligence Services and government. That means the Americans do not trust any of the leaders of Pakistan.

Pakistan’s foreign secretary Salman Bashir complained bitterly that Pakistan had played a key role in the fight against Islamist militancy. “Most of these things that have happened in terms of global anti-terror, Pakistan has played a pivotal role,” he said. “So it’s a little disquieting when we have comments like this.” A little disquieting in plain English means: This is a scandal. Earlier, President Asif Ali Zardari said American claims were “baseless speculation … that doesn’t reflect fact.”

But such protestations carry no weight in Washington, where the latest events have sparked a huge public scandal. The media is full of bitter invective against Pakistan. In the US Congress, Patrick Meehan, chair of a House Subcommittee on Counterterrorism and Intelligence wondered aloud if the country was driven by “divided loyalty, complicity [or] incompetence”. Democrat Jackie Speier called it “the elephant in the room”.

For their part, Pakistani intelligence and army chiefs are furious and embarrassed at not having been informed of a raid that took place under their very noses. It exposed serious weaknesses in Pakistan’s defence and intelligence capabilities.

Pakistan’s military has been keeping quiet, although officials from the Inter-Services Intelligence have released some details about the raid based on interviews with Bin Laden relatives left behind by the US Navy Seal team. A senior ISI official said that Bin Laden’s 12-year-old daughter had witnessed her father being killed and confirmed his death. “She said she saw him being shot,” said the official.

He said the ISI had raided the Abbottabad house as it was under construction in 2003 in search of Abu Faraj al-Libbi, an al-Qaeda lieutenant who was eventually captured two years later. But satellite imagery from 2004 shows an empty field on the site of the present house, and later images suggest that construction started a year later, shortly before US officials say Bin Laden and his family moved in. From this little incident we must draw the conclusion that both sides are lying to conceal what they are doing and why.

Moral considerations apart (and in truth such considerations have no place in war), this action was a success for US imperialism and a heavy blow to what remains of al-Qaeda’s depleted network. In addition to Bin Laden’s bloody corpse the American soldiers took away computer hard disks and a pile of documents. This material will doubtless furnish the CIA with further information about the activities and whereabouts of other al-Qaeda operatives in Pakistan and elsewhere. This will be used for new attacks and assassinations. It will be a far heavier blow than the liquidation of Bin Laden, who had already become more of a symbolic figure than an actual leader.

Obama said that by killing Bin Laden “we are once again reminded that America can do whatever we set our mind to”. The idea implied in these words is that the USA abrogates to itself the right to intervene wherever it likes in the world, to violate not only national frontiers but even to send its soldiers to burst into people’s homes and kill anyone it regards as an enemy. In short, “we can do whatever we like.” Here Great Power arrogance speaks loud and clear in its authentic voice.

London, May 5, 2011


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