Locating and killing the world’s most infamous terrorist is a huge victory for America. That is beyond doubt. It was achieved by the tireless work of our intelligence community and by the skill, daring and courage of our special operations forces. And it could not have happened had President Barack Hussein Obama not made one of the gutsiest calls ever by any president. He made it following careful deliberation and after weighing the pros and cons from advisors with, what we know now were, differing opinions; and in the knowledge that, despite the risks, there was no better than an 80% chance that Osama bin Laden was even in the compound in the Pakistan military garrison town of Abbottabad. It’s a victory over al-Qaeda that we should all celebrate both because it has struck a serious blow against the terrorist organization, and because justice has been served to the thousands of innocents who have been killed on bin Laden’s orders.
No matter how distasteful, I suppose we shouldn’t be surprised, however, to be treated to the spectacle of Dick Cheney, Donald Rumsfeld and other apologists from the last administration emerging from the woodwork to link this singular achievement to the torture of detainees during the Bush years. As Maureen Dowd said in a recent piece, these efforts are torture in themselves.
On Fox News Sunday, Chris Wallace asked Tom Donilon why it was okay to shoot an unarmed Osama bin Laden but not to torture (of course this was Fox News so Wallace never used the word “torture”) suspected terrorist detainees. It says much about the state of mind of so many on the right in this country that Wallace would even ask such a question.
The short answer is that the rules of war (and the right is constantly reminding us that we are at war) allows us to kill our enemies, but to take them prisoner if they are manifestly trying to surrender. They do not allow us to torture our enemies under any circumstances. The final account we have of the mission is that OBL made no effort to surrender and he was therefore fair game to kill.
Tracking OBL down was a years-long effort that required painstaking work from our intelligence professionals, and by all accounts no single piece of information from the Bush years enabled us to track him down no matter how strenuously Cheney and others assert otherwise. And even if some information obtained from torture in the Bush years was a part of the mosaic that finally led to OBL’s lair, it in no way justifies employing torture as a tool of American national security policy.
The secret CIA prisons were an abomination as was the torturing of suspected terrorists, including the waterboarding 183 times of Khalid Sheikh Mohammed. The Bush administration surrendered to fear and weakness in resorting to such tactics and in doing so dragged the whole country with them into the muck.
The lesson of those years is that even in the darkest of times, we need presidential leadership that continues to expect the very best of what we are and then leads by example. Obama has met that standard. Alas George W Bush did not.