Rights groups in moral confusion over bin Laden, and much else besides

Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International and company have lost the plot on the bin Laden killing.

The prisoner of conscience candle
Trevor Norwitz
On 9 May 2011 05:40

A few days ago, one of the greatest enemies of human rights, a self-confessed mass murderer and a terrorist by any definition, was put out of business permanently by the US military. While one arguably ought not rejoice at any person’s death, few decent people will be sad to see this one gone. Osama bin Laden was a monster.

One might have expected the leaders of the human rights community to be pleased. After all, Al Qaeda’s thugs had demonstrated over and over again their determination to deny the most fundamental human rights to all who would not submit to their narrow and cruel – not to mention racist, sexist and homophobic – world view. To his credit, UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon commended the demise of bin Laden as “a watershed moment in our common global fight against terrorism”.

Sadly, however, the luminaries who preside over the world’s most powerful “human rights” organizations did not see it that way. Kenneth Roth, the Executive Director of Human Rights Watch, immediately “tweeted” to his followers: “Ban Ki-moon wrong on #Osama bin Laden: It’s not “justice” for him to be killed even if justified; no trial, conviction”. He later pressed President Obama to justify his treatment of the terrorist mastermind: “White House still hasn’t clarified: OBL ‘resisted’ but how did he pose lethal threat to US forces on scene? Need facts.

Amnesty International, another misguided giant of the human rights world, was similarly quick to question the legality of the actions ordered by President Obama. “Amnesty International believes that US forces should have attempted to capture Osama bin Laden alive in order to bring him to trial if he was unarmed and posing no immediate threat,” pontificated its Senior Director Claudio Cordone.

It is distressing that the so-called leaders of our human rights community have become so discombobulated through intellectual inbreeding and overweening self-importance that their instinctive reaction at a time like this is to lash out not at the terrorists, but at America and President Obama. Their statements offer succor and moral support to the enemies of democracy and human rights everywhere.

This is not only morally perverse but wrong.  To suggest that America, once it had identified bin Laden’s lair, did not have the right to attack it – even by drone or missile – is ludicrous. 

Bin Laden was a legitimate military target of the highest order.  The strategic imperative to put an end to his terrorist career, even if he had not already murdered thousands of innocent people, would have justified substantial collateral damage. This is the basic proportionality principle of the laws of war (that is routinely misapplied in Israel’s case). 

In any event, it is worth noting that any adults in the house with him – including those who were actually killed – were themselves accessories to mass murder. Anyone feeling confused by the tweets and bleats of the high priests of human rights, should try to invoke a Rawlsian “veil of ignorance” and imagine what they would have said last week while Osama bin Laden was still at large plotting mayhem. It is too easy to be a Monday morning quarterback, making tough calls from an armchair with the benefit of hindsight.

To his credit, President Obama made the courageous decision to send soldiers instead of bombs, to attempt a more surgical operation. This choice to risk the lives of young Americans spared the lives of Muslim children, yielded valuable information, and created the possibility of taking bin Laden alive or, alternatively, increased the odds of identifying his corpse. 

Fortunately the mission went well but it was not easy. Knowing all we do about Al Qaeda, one would not have expected the occupants of the house to give up without a fight, and indeed they did not.

Although there were few bodyguards present in the compound (indicating that bin Laden relied for his safety on his human shields and the certainty of a Pakistani tip-off), the SEALs came under hostile fire during the raid. In the battle that followed (which the New York Times described as “one-sided” – as though that’s a bad thing), bin Laden, his son and two other henchmen were killed and his wife was wounded.  None of the children in the compound was harmed.

Dissatisfied with the minimization of collateral damage, the human rights czars, leftist reporters and others ever eager to criticize the United States are poring over every detail released trying to determine exactly how the deal went down and whether the human rights of bin Laden and his accomplices were violated. 

Most Americans are bemused if not outraged at this fixation on the rights of a man who never gave a thought to the rights of any of his thousands of victims. (The same can be said of the ridiculous brouhaha surrounding the manner in which his body was dispatched to meet his 72 sturgeons. Certainly he deserved no better. It is our humanity rather than his, and a touch of self-preservation, that dictated a modicum of decorum for the burial.)

The less than veiled accusation is that President Obama and the Navy SEALs made no effort to capture bin Laden but simply carried out an extrajudicial execution, a lawless hit. 

In the perverse world of moral equivalence occupied by the human rights luminaries – where everyone is equally culpable and equally worthy of protection – by assassinating bin Laden, America sank to his level.

Even if one accepts the faulty proposition that the law requires a trial and conviction before orders can be given to eliminate a terrorist leader, and even with the government’s desultory information flow, we have always known enough to give President Obama and the US military the benefit of the doubt on the legality question.

CIA Director Leon Panetta explained that the rules of engagement for the operation were that the SEALs were to capture bin Laden “if he had in fact thrown up his hands and surrendered and didn’t appear to be representing any kind of threat” but said he was shot in response to “threatening moves,” perhaps towards his nearby AK-47 or Makarov pistol. 

For most, that explanation of the demise of the most wanted mass murderer of modern times would suffice.

But not for the lords of human rights who, in their surpassing arrogance, saw fit to immediately join the anti-American chorus in casting doubt on the legitimacy of the operation and to demand an accounting from the White House. “Need facts,” Ken Roth tweeted imperiously.

No, Mr. Roth, what you need is humility, and perspective, and a functional moral compass. The Human Rights Watch that was established and run by Bob Bernstein had these qualities and was a great force for good in the world. But you have squandered them and unless you find them again very soon, Human Rights Watch will lose its remaining legitimacy and ability to be taken seriously as a voice on human rights matters. This is not about you and your holier-than-thou moral purity. This is about making the world a better and a safer place. And it is a better and safer place because Osama bin Laden sleeps with the fishes.

True, the government’s execution was not flawless. The information flow was botched and the code name for bin Laden was insensitive to Native Americans.

Reasonable people can debate the quick burial at sea and whether or not to release the photographs. But these are minor issues in the greater scheme. The perfect can not be the enemy of the good.

No-one said it better than President Theodore Roosevelt, 101 years ago:

“It is not the critic who counts: not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles or where the doer of deeds could have done better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood, who strives valiantly, who errs and comes up short again and again, because there is no effort without error or shortcoming . . . his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who knew neither victory nor defeat.”

Trevor Norwitz is a partner at Wachtell, Lipton, Rosen & Katz in New York and adjunct lecturer at Columbia Law School

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