Since the death of Osama bin Laden on Sunday, there have been conflicting reports as to how hard Navy SEALs really tried to arrest him, and debates over whether we should have attempted to take him alive. Most of the points of view in this debate are legitimate. Sparing him, if possible, would have allowed opportunities for interrogation, for example, and could still have been followed by a fairly speedy military trial and execution if proper legislation had been passed to facilitate that.
But there is one fairly obvious argument that I have not yet heard voiced about why the killing was legitimate. Even if Bin Laden did not have a weapon in his hands when he was shot, he could easily have been wired for a suicide attack, choosing to take his own life and those in the room with him as a final act of “martyrdom.” Killing him fast was the best way to minimize the chances of his carrying out such a plan.
The narrative here could have been very much to al Qaeda’s liking: even after the United States finally finds Bin Laden after a decade of searching for him, he gets the last laugh by taking out one or more elite Navy SEALs as he also meets his own demise. This scenario could have contributed further to the myth of bin Laden and left the world arguing over who really succeeded in the engagement, the United States or bin Laden.
Many al Qaeda operatives have worked very hard over the years to get themselves into position to carry out suicide attacks against U.S. troops or intelligence personnel or others. Think back to the Khost tragedy of December 30, 2009 when a man Jordanian intelligence thought to be close to Bin Laden killed several Americans, including some very young and promising CIA officers, once he talked his way onto a base in eastern Afghanistan. Bin Laden could have done something similar—without even having to move out of his own bedroom.
He’d had five years to anticipate the scenario. He’d had half an hour or so since the first sounds of forcible entry and gunshots would have alerted him to the presence of unfriendly forces. He could very easily have strapped explosives onto his body with a means of detonation that the SEAL who shot him could only guess at. Indeed, it is conceivable that the whole house could have been booby-trapped, meaning that a half dozen or more American warriors could have been killed if bin Laden had had time to push a button or otherwise cue a detonator.
Of course we know now that Bin Laden had not prepared such a plan. But the famous, anonymous SEAL who sent him to his maker could not know that at the time.
It is reasonable to debate whether trying to take Bin Laden alive would have been preferable to killing him quickly. It is not, however, reasonable to describe the killing of bin Laden as the cruel assassination of an unarmed, defenseless, and harmless man.