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Bin Laden, the fringe Left, and the torturous Right
The killing of the architect of September 11 has provoked predictable remonstrance from the usual suspects 
Robert Shrum
Robert Shrum
M

ost Americans have reacted to the brave and brilliant operation that killed Osama bin Laden with pride and satisfaction. The predominant emotion — and this was a profoundly emotional moment — was not a sense of revenge for its own sake, but of renewed confidence in America's capacity, relief that we no longer seemed helpless or hopeless in the pursuit of the world's greatest mass murderer, and the simple belief, as Barack Obama expressed it, that "justice was done."

There are a lot more important things to worry about in the world than the supposed violation of bin Laden's civil liberties — or on the far opposite side of the ideological divide, a concocted vindication of torture glibly and opportunistically credited for the American success in tracking and taking him down. But such were the nearly instant, sadly predictable responses of those on the fringe Left who see bin Laden's manner of dying as a blatant act of injustice, and from the neocons who want to use his death to justify their systematic and futile violation of both the law and basic standards of justice.

First, the complaints on the Left from the few, the perennially unhappy few, who see America darkly and instinctively suspect the worst. I'm a progressive — yes, a liberal — but on this issue, Rosie O'Donnell, Michael Moore, and foreign critics like the British human-rights lawyer Geoffrey Robertson don't speak for me. Robertson decried this "cold-blooded assassination" as "amoral.” More colorfully, Moore charged that in killing rather than capturing bin Laden, America "lost something of its soul." O’Donnell compared what the SEAL team did in Pakistan to what the mastermind of 9/11 had perpetrated "on our soil."

To borrow the word that she applied to the operation, that is a monstrous equation. It is not only an inversion of the moral equities, but it and this entire line of self-righteous recrimination are unMoored in fact or in the mortal realities of war.

If he had unambiguously surrendered, bin Laden would be alive in custody today. We would probably be engaged in a painful, bitterly partisan debate about where and how to try him. The president was willing to pay that price. The operation positioned a team of interrogators and translators to deal with a captured bin Laden. But if there was resistance, threat, or uncertainty, the SEALs who had to shoot their way into his compound had the authority to shoot him — and the authority to make that decision on the spot. Bin Laden wasn't to be given the benefit of the doubt — which could have led to the loss of American troops.

In those minutes of high tension, where so much was at stake, that was precisely the right balance. I wonder if most of the naysayers have been in combat; I never have. But those of us who weren't there that night owe the benefit of any doubt to the Americans who dared this mission. We should honor them, not demean the hard choices they made on the knife’s edge of survival. They surely risked their lives; Obama possibly risked his presidency.

On the other end of the spectrum, Dick Cheney, who's never been in combat, also never fails to disappoint. This time, he and his acolytes seized on a victory they threw away when they turned away from the hunt for bin Laden in Afghanistan to manufacture a fraudulent war in Iraq. Nearly a decade later they could announce they finally had their evidence that medieval techniques like waterboarding actually work. John Yoo, the Berkeley law professor who as a Bush appointee offered legal cover and sanction to the illegalities of torture, hurried into fist-pumping print in The Wall Street Journal. He wrote that "George W. Bush, not his successor, constructed the interrogation and warrantless surveillance programs that produced this week’s actionable intelligence."

I could observe that the programs were mighty slow to produce; the larger problem is that the argument is long on assertion and implausible connection — and shorn of convincing proof.  John McCain, in a welcome return to the leader he used to be, demolishes such tortured briefs for torture in a Washington Post op-ed that lays out the chronology and concludes that "the trail to bin Laden did not begin" with any of the detainees who were waterboarded.

But now a second front has been opened in this debate, with the case for torture supported not by the facts that led to bin Laden’s demise, but to the sheer fact of it. On Fox News Sunday, Chris Wallace put the apologists’ newly minted challenge to National Security Advisor Tom Donilon. Wallace asked: "Why is shooting an unarmed man in the face legal and proper while enhanced interrogation…is…over the line?"

It's an apparently convenient line of reasoning, but the premise is simplistic and illogical. For example, just because someone might favor the death penalty doesn't mean they have to condone torture. Bin Laden was not in custody when the SEAL team fired in that split second of doubt and potential danger; they were, as Donilon said, "at war… It was a military operation, right? It was absolutely appropriate for the SEALs to take the action…"

That's very different from applying the techniques of the Inquisition to prisoners already and completely under your control. If NATO forces killed Moammar Gadhafi in an attack tonight, I'm certain that Libya and the world would be better off. But it doesn’t follow as the day the night that it would therefore be right to engage in the moral evil of torturing Gadhafi if we could. 

The plain truth is that Bush failed to get bin Laden and Obama did. But nothing now seems immune from a politics of the absurd that too easily casts right as wrong, inverts reality, and pulls the extreme into mainstream dialogue. After a month in which Donald Trump was taken seriously, during a week in which Newt Gingrich declared his candidacy, at a time when the 2012 Republican anthem looks as if it might be "Bring in the Clowns," perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised that the killing of bin Laden has provoked remonstrance from some on the Left and self-justification from too many on the Right. 

The vast majority of Americans are where they should be — with the president and the SEALs. Barack Obama showed that a progressive Commander-in-Chief can command the heights of national security as Franklin Roosevelt,  Harry Truman, and John Kennedy did. That's not just good for the president or his party, but for the country. So instead of muddled thinking about bin Laden's Miranda rights, or a partisan rhetoric of redemption for past failure, the reflex critics and the false credit-takers at least ought to have the decency to grant us the sounds of their silence.

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