Bin Laden death: Call it execution, not 'justice'

President Barack Obama, who takes an Osama bin Laden victory lap at Ground Zero today, ought to just come out and say the plan was to kill the guy all along. Stop with all the who-struck-John about what happened during the "firefight" inside bin Laden's lair in Pakistan — whether the world's most wanted man "resisted" his would-be captors when he wasn't armed. As details emerge from what a White House aide called the "fog of combat," execution appears to have been the order of the day.

A video or photograph might prove me wrong — today the White House might say bin Laden threw a lamp at an invading Navy Seal — but let's not buy any pretense that our guys were told to capture him for trial. The world's most wanted man might have thrown up his arms in surrender, for all we know. It doesn't matter. The "rules of engagement" ensured that the alleged al-Qaida leader would be killed.

"Justice has been done," President Obama said, making it clear that he now fully embraces the post-Sept. 11 approach to that hallowed principle established by his predecessor.

This is the same Barack Obama who, cleaning up after George W. Bush, promised to close the military prison at Guantanamo Bay. "A sad chapter in American history," Mr. Obama called it. But, of course, the prison that drew global condemnation is still there, with 172 detainees; many have never been charged with crimes.

As a candidate in 2008, Barack Obama also criticized trials of alleged terrorists by the Bush-era military tribunals the Supreme Court ruled unconstitutional; he said he'd abolish the tribunals as president and pledged to try suspected Sept. 11 conspirators in a U.S. district court in Manhattan. That won't happen. The president bowed to Republican pressure and reversed course. In March, Mr. Obama cleared the way for new military trials in Guantánamo, and last month the attorney general, Eric Holder, announced that trials of Sept. 11 mastermind Khalid Sheikh Muhammad and four co-conspirators also would be conducted by a military commission in Guantanamo.

The same Mr. Holder now says the killing of Osama bin Laden in Pakistan was perfectly legal: We are at war with al-Qaida, and its alleged leader is simply its latest casualty.

But where I come from, which is the city of Baltimore, we've had a "war on drugs" for years; that doesn't mean the cops get to shoot unarmed bad guys. In fact, should one of the city's fugitive squads raid the suspected hideaway of a fugitive, and should one of Baltimore's finest shoot said fugitive (said fugitive being unarmed), a real fit-storm would ensue. There would be an internal investigation, to be sure, and perhaps even criminal charges against the cop.

Cops have a tough job, especially those who kick down doors to root out the bad guys who conduct their own brand of terror in Baltimore's beleaguered neighborhoods. But even the cops have to obey the law. The idea — and it's a grand old idea — is to bring fugitives to justice, not shoot them as they rise from slumber.

Asked about the killing of Osama bin Laden, the human rights lawyer Geoffrey Robertson called President Obama's statement about "justice" a perversion of the term. "Justice means taking someone to court, finding them guilty upon evidence and sentencing them," Mr. Robertson told an Australian television network. "This man has been subject to summary execution, and what is now appearing after a good deal of disinformation from the White House is it may well have been a cold-blooded assassination."

But, as I said, post-Sept. 11 America seems OK with that, and the president ought to just say that was the plan all along. Please don't call this "justice."

Certainly the White House must have considered what a trial of bin Laden would have meant — untold costs in high-level security and detainment, relentless publicity, persistent speculation that bin Laden could still plot attacks from Guantanamo, the daunting political challenge of finding a courtroom on domestic soil for his trial. Then, of course, there would have been the matter of proving him guilty of crimes, even before a military commission rigged to deliver a guilty verdict, followed by the highly charged issue of sentencing: capital punishment or a life sentence in a federal prison somewhere (assuming the Justice Department could find one in an accommodating congressional district).

Indeed, American justice is complex and costly, tedious and cumbersome. But it is supposed to be the highest form of justice, closely watched by the whole world, including those rebelling this spring against the dictatorships of the Arab nations. Killing Osama bin Laden outright — that's vengeance or something else. It's not justice, and President Obama knows better.

Dan Rodricks' column appears Tuesdays, Thursdays and Sundays. He is host of Midday on WYPR, 88.1 FM. His email is

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