The Monitor's View

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?

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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.

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.

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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.

By the thousands, almost daily, they have defied the stereotype of Arabs as always seeking an eye for an eye for the sake of vengeance. “Salmiya, salmiya (we are peaceful),” the Egyptian youth chanted in February.

By sacrificing themselves – dare we call it turning the other cheek? – they are creating a critical mass of people with conscience, willing to die for liberty and inspiring the support of other countries. In Tunisia and Egypt, dictators had to exit in the face of such moral pressure.

Most of all, the protesters have rejected loudly the Al Qaeda model of violence to achieve Muslim aims. They have redefined jihad, and in so doing made it easier to bring democracy to their lands than if they had taken up arms.

(The one exception came in Libya where, after an initial use of nonviolence, protesters began to fight back, which helps explain the difficulty NATO now faces in protecting civilians against Muammar Qaddafi.)

America’s use of swift violence against terrorists is also difficult to reconcile with Mr. Obama’s own stated beliefs in the principles of nonviolence.

The winner of the 2009 Nobel Peace Prize is a long-time admirer of the peaceful tactics of Mohandas Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr. He has cited Gandhi as the person he would most like to dine with. And he called himself “a living testimony to the moral force of nonviolence” used by King against violent whites during the civil rights movement.

“Resistance through violence and killing is wrong and it does not succeed,” he said in his famous 2009 speech in Cairo.

Still, as president and commander in chief, Obama has said he must act to defend the nation. And that he certainly did by ordering the SEALs into the walled home of bin Laden, not knowing how it would turn out.

Using nonviolence tactics to end violence by either despots or terrorists can sometimes seem futile. But history shows it has liberated many people, from Poland to the Philippines to Serbia.

Last Sunday, as he watched the SEALs from the White House, Obama had plenty of tough choices to make, and none more so than how to direct them in trying to either capture or kill bin Laden. How much should the SEALS have put their lives in jeopardy to capture bin Laden, bringing him to justice through a trial under law?

Events went toward killing. And many Americans celebrated the death of someone who has killed thousands.

But if this close encounter with the most wanted man on earth had gone the other way, it was possible that America’s moral capital might have gone up. And Obama might have enjoyed seeing his own high standards on nonviolence made real.

We’ll never really know.

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