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The killing of Osama bin Laden: Was capture really an option?

Capturing Osama bin Laden was fraught with peril, not only for the SEALs but for the US legal system. Still, might it also have raise America's moral stature with Muslims, and reflected the nonviolence principles of the Arab Spring – as well as Obama?

By the Monitor's Editorial Board / May 4, 2011



America might have raised its moral standing in the Muslim world if it had been able to capture Osama bin Laden instead of killing him – or even made more of an effort to capture him.

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But in that split-second choice by a Navy SEAL to shoot the unarmed Al Qaeda leader, the moment was lost.

This trigger-quick killing of the man behind 9/11 is probably easy to justify in those difficult circumstances. In 2001, Congress had authorized such force. Mr. bin Laden is said to have resisted capture in his Pakistan hideout. And there was a chance he could have set off an explosive, such as a suicide belt, killing the SEALs.

It was a tough call, not one easily second-guessed. The world may never know if, given a bit more time or a different encounter, bin Laden might have put up his hands, revealed his body as harmless, and surrendered. “To be frank,” CIA Director Leon Panetta said in a PBS interview, “I don’t think he had a lot of time to say anything.”

For President Obama, the outright elimination of terrorists does seem to be his preferred tactic. US drone attacks on suspected terrorist targets in Pakistan have escalated since he took office. He has authorized the killing of Anwar al-Awlaki, an American and influential Islamist cleric in Yemen who promotes violence. And when given a choice in 2009 between capturing or killing Saleh Ali Saleh Nabhan, the leader of an Al Qaeda affiliate in Somalia, the administration chose to kill.

Such tactics may strike fear in extremists, perhaps deterring them from violence against civilians. And they certainly reduce the constitutional struggles in the United States over what to do with them as detainees.

But the method also stands in stark contrast to the surprising embrace of nonviolence by young Muslims in the Arab Spring.

Since December, hundreds of unarmed demonstrators have been killed in Tunisia, Egypt, Syria, Libya, Bahrain, and Yemen – many of them knowing their deaths would carry moral weight, and thus possibly cause splits in security forces or the shredding of legitimacy from their despots.

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