Gunning for Bin Laden

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It might seem churlish to second-guess a military operation that removed a master terrorist from the face of the Earth. But conflicting statements from the White House about whether Osama bin Laden was armed during the raid on his compound raise the question of whether the United States ever intended to do anything other than kill him, and if not, whether we should find that troubling.

In his statement to the nation Sunday, President Obama said Bin Laden was killed after a firefight, the implication being that he exchanged gunfire with American commandos. Speaking on Monday, John Brennan, Obama’s counter-terrorism advisor, echoed those remarks and said: “Whether or not he got off any rounds, I frankly don’t know.” Then, on Tuesday, White House Press Secretary Jay Carney backtracked, revealing that Bin Laden was in fact unarmed when he was killed.

Some officials insist that capture was a possibility. On Wednesday, Carney said the commandos were told to be prepared to accept Bin Laden’s surrender. A spokesman for the National Security Council said there were contingency plans to transport him to a naval vessel and begin interrogation. But other officials say that though capturing Bin Laden alive was always a possibility, self-defense was defined broadly. They told The Times: “The assault force was told to accept a surrender only if it could be sure he didn’t have a bomb hidden under his clothing and posed no other danger.” A congressional aide briefed on the rules of engagement said that Bin Laden “would have had to be naked for them to allow him to surrender.”


The attractions of assassination over capture are obvious: Killing Bin Laden forestalls public controversy over whether and where he should be tried. It provides the American people with a sense of closure not offered by a trial. And it sends a powerful message to the world about U.S. resolve — or, as some might perceive it, ruthlessness.

But there also would have been advantages to taking Bin Laden alive. He could have provided information about the plans of Al Qaeda and the whereabouts of his second-in-command, Ayman Zawahiri. And, as will be the case with the trial of Khalid Shaikh Mohammed, a trial for Bin Laden would have demonstrated that the United States was willing to afford the protections of U.S. law even to the worst of the worst.

In the end, it is what it is. U.S. forces killed Bin Laden in a bold and risky raid. We do not have enough information to say whether the commandos were right or wrong to pull the trigger, and we’re not saddened that an implacable foe of the United States is dead.

Still, we’d like to think that the people in charge planned for the possibility of capture. There would have been something uplifting — something to be proud of — if Bin Laden had been brought home and publicly held to account for his many crimes.