On May 1, President Obama declared that the United States had successfully tracked down and killed Osama Bin Laden, arguably the world’s most wanted man. Almost immediately, an onslaught of dialogue hit the media and a large proportion of it was quick to criticize the Obama administration’s actions during and after the raid of the complex in which Bin Laden was found.
Photos of Osama Bin Laden’s Corpse
One of the most controversial topics is the decision of the Obama administration to withhold the photo of Osama Bin Laden’s body after it was recovered from the scene. President Barack Obama, in an interview that aired on “60 Minutes,” stated that the graphic nature of the photos could incite a fresh surge of violence both domestically and in the Middle East. Nonetheless, I believe these photos should be accessible to the public they wish to see them.
For one thing, American taxpayers have footed the exorbitant cost of the War on Terror since 2001. Since claiming responsibility for the September 11th airplane hijackings, Osama Bin Laden has cost the United States an estimated $3 trillion, accounting for economic damage, arms development, domestic security measures, and of course the direct costs associated with hunting down top Al Qaida operatives (1). It seems reasonable for the public to want some assurance that these costs are finally yielding results.
Nor do the reasons President Obama has given for preventing the photos from circulating appear to be legitimate ones; after all, videos of Saddam Hussein’s execution and images of Osama Bin Laden’s dead sons did not have this effect. While I do not wish any harm on anyone involved in these affairs in the Middle East, we cannot allow fear to drive our decisions.
With the added confusion about the fake photo of Bin Laden’s body floating around the internet, the conspiracy theories are all but inevitable. To clarify, I do not think that the United States has falsified the Bin Laden’s death. For one thing, if it were to ever come out that that was the case the ensuing scandal would be global, as so many other countries are involved in this affair. Additionally, Pakistani soldiers who witnessed his death have given their own accounts of what happened, DNA testing is said to be conclusive, and photos and video footage found inside the compound have been released to the media. Though the skeptics will remain, this is evidence enough to prove that Bin Laden is dead, at least in my opinion.
My main reason for disagreeing with the Obama administration’s decision to withhold the photos is one of principle. Transparency of government is one of the fundamental ideologies at the heart of any democracy. Regardless of political beliefs, most people can agree that as voters we must be able to make informed choices in the policies taken by our government, and to witness the effects of the foreign policy decisions being made around the world in our name. It is the responsibility of the government, therefore, to release the photos not to prove that Osama Bin Laden is actually dead, but because we are fighting a war in the name of freedom and democracy. As such, it is the duty of the Obama administration to uphold these principles both domestically and abroad.
Osama Bin Laden’s Sea Burial
The decision to drop Osama Bin Laden’s body into the ocean was one that was part of a contingency plan prepared months in advance in the case of his death or capture. The rationale behind such a burial was to prevent the location of his grave from becoming a shrine for his followers. It has also been stated that it was not possible to find a country willing to take the body within the time period before the burial had to take place.
This is one matter in which the Obama administration took the best course of action. Islamic law requires that a body be buried within 24 hours of death, and unless faced with extreme circumstances, calls for a burial in the earth (2). Though there is no doubt that Bin Laden is an unusual case; whether it is unusual enough to merit such a burial is unclear. Whether or not the burial was appropriate under Islamic law will probably always remain a contentious topic among Muslims but it was carried out in a way that was fully intended to be respectful of Islamic tradition.
Akbar Ahmed, the chairman of the Islamic studies department at American University, said that the burial sites of Muslim figures often attract followers who think these shrines have certain powers (3). The quick disposal of the body and the anonymity of the location will allow the legacy of Osama Bin Laden to fade away, not become stronger as people use his grave site to congregate and further the principles he stood for.
Legality Under International Law
The decision to send United States troops to the ground in Pakistan in order to retrieve Osama Bin Laden is fairly ambiguous under international law. For one thing, there are those who believe that the United States violated international human rights laws when they shot and killed Osama Bin Laden, who was unarmed at the time. However, this action was legal for several reasons. First of all, Bin Laden, who has taken credit for the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center in 2001, is clearly classified as an enemy combatant. As such, his killing was legal. In addition, he made no attempt to surrender and the troops that went in after him faced other heavily armed individuals who posed a significant threat, making the use of lethal force justified.
Another part of the legal dispute is the question of whether or not the United States violated Pakistan’s sovereignty when they sent troops to the ground. The United States has made it clear that Pakistan was not informed of the raid prior to its execution, and it may have been a misstep on the part of the administration to exclude Pakistan from what they knew would be such an important and controversial point in the war.
Prof. Matthew Waxman of Columbia Law School stated, “Under international law, it would normally be a violation of a state’s sovereignty to launch this sort of raid, unless the state consents or perhaps because of an overriding necessity of self-defense,” (4). Because it is certainly a matter of national security to capture Bin Laden and prevent him from planning further attacks on United States troops, the legality of the decision to put troops on the ground in Pakistan is defensible. What may have been overlooked is the importance of a good working relationship with Pakistan; much of the logistical success of the war depends on Pakistan’s willingness to allow the US to fly over its airspace. With Pakistan looking more and more like a pawn for the US, they may be less accommodating in the future.
With all of the media attention and the controversy surrounding these developments and with much of the information regarding the circumstances of Osama Bin Laden’s death, it is easy to lose track of what is fact and what is fiction. What people must keep in mind is that there are absolutely facts about the events that took place on May 1st that the general public is not privy to and most likely will not be until this war is long past. Military analysts work diligently to make the best choices they can given the circumstances and knowledge that they possess. While it is our right and our duty to keep a watchful eye on our elected officials, I believe that in this matter the administration acted based on a rational analysis of the facts available. Though I may disagree with a few of the decisions made over the past few days, I am pleased to see that the United States has approached the situation with decisiveness.
Photo Courtesy of US Embassy New Zealand