The Killing of Those in High and Notorious Places: initial thoughts

Death is a regular visitor. It comes by even in a week when the big seller was a royal wedding couched in "fairyland" terms by almost everyone except (thank God) the Church, which at least saw this particular wedding as a token or sign of all weddings which carry the regal hope that promises made and love shared is a high ideal. Marriage of those in high places give some the hope that their marriages, although less grand, are none the less occasions that participate in a generally recognized "good thing."

But what of the death of those in high (or notorious) places?  Death, for most of us is an odd mixture of reality, story and fiction. But death by killing presents a story where justice is often less important than some other concerns. The killing of those in high places requires some rationale, if only because we of lower estate need the confidence that justice is served there and would be served as well if we were killed.  

This last week it was reported that Saif al-Arab Gaddafi, 29, the son of Moamer Gaddafi, was killed in a NATO strike along with several of his children (grandchildren to Gaddafi.)  It is unclear just what end was served by these deaths. They bring no honor to NATO. These deaths are basically "collateral damage," the killing people who just happened to be in the way. In the way of what? Who was the target of the strike?  Any of us who look for a rationale here have to look hard. 

A child's death is a source of great sadness. Killing a child is almost entirely to be viewed as a very bad thing. Killing a parent requires explanation to the child but killing a child requires even more.  Killing either leaves some with unanswered questions of justice and right. These are not deaths to celebrate. This is no good news for those of us who wish justice for us lowly to be mirrored  in justice for those in high places. 

Last night the reports came in that Osama bin Laden was killed. Bin Laden was not a man in "high place."  He was a maker of terror, a murderer and the leader of a death machine. Killing bin Laden was the killing of a notorious murderer.  

It might have been better had he been taken into custody, but probably that would only have put off his execution.   "Taking out" bin Laden is a far cry from killing children who were in the wrong place at the wrong time. Killing bin Laden was an immediate consequence of armed conflict.  

Still, there is an unease here. To the extent that we want justice modeled for the high and the notorious in such a way that it mirrors what justice would look like for the low and unknown, this is not a promising event.  It suggests that "wanted dead or alive" really is desire without differentiation. We want him either way, dead or alive, and without much care as to which. Justice is not well served by unexamined fulfillment of desire. That is not justice, that is revenge.

I'm glad, very glad, we got him. And if getting him meant killing him, so be it. But I wish we had taken him alive. I mostly want armed forces and police to practice taking them alive, on the grounds that when they get to the lowly they (whoever they are) will not simply consider lowly folk not worth the trial.

Last night was a "Western" ending, a showdown. "Wanted, dead or alive."  Fine, here he is, dead. But Westerns don't always promote justice. They give greater place to getting even. This is less good news.


  1. Wise words, Sir

  2. There is report in the news that the US and NATO both question the deaths of Gaddafi's son and grandchildren.

    Sometimes folks like Gaddafi and bin Laden cowardly hide behind family members, as is the reported case of bin Laden using his wife as a human shield.

    Or hiding military command and control centers in your home or the homes of family members.

  3. To all those who wage war, death is a reality one cannot escape, General George Patton notwithstanding. When one wages the kind of war where there are no rules, then to hope that the "other side" plays by the rules is foolhardy. One thing is certain, when the United States says it will find you and get you, you can be sure that is exactly what they mean. Folks like Quadaffi and Hassan and the guy in North Korea, sure look differently on us today than they did yesterday.

  4. "It might have been better had he been taken into custody, but probably that would only have put off his execution."

    To say that he would have died anyway is a moral problem for Americans. In other countries he would then be imprisoned for the rest of his natural life.

  5. "Folks like Quadaffi and Hassan and the guy in North Korea, sure look differently on us today than they did yesterday."

    No, they don't.
    The reality of terror is that it thrives on high profile events. There is nothing in the history of terror to suggest that this will do anything towards eradicating the roots and the passion of terrorism.

  6. Just out of curiosity, how would one arrest a man determined to fight to the death; or be killed by his own if not otherwise killed? Is the morality of the impractical/unworkable a bona fide morality?

    We are not taliing about telling a bank robber to 'drop it or else.' This man was an established, ruthless, calculating killer, who undoubtably knew this day would one day come.


  7. Erika--so, did Obama do this -- a 'high profile killing' -- for political advantage?


  8. BTW--the White House is now saying Obama was unarmed. If this is so, can we conclude someone was prevaricating to justify the killing? If he was unarmed, then why wasn't he arrested?

    My remarks were predicated on the White House saying he was armed and resistant.


  9. Bill,
    with all duerespect, I think Obama hass always been unarmed, but this is not to say Osama was
    unarmed. ;-}

    And, Erika, would you not say that the killing of bin Laden was a high profile "terrorist" act? I beleive we did it for just that reason. Otherwise, he simply could have slipped on a bar of soap in the shower.

  10. Yes, officially released after debriefing the commandos involved in the mission, the story is that the commando who encountered bin Laden found him on the 3rd floor, his wife rushed the commando who shot her in the leg and then bin Laden in the head and chest. Bin Laden was reported to be unarmed.

  11. Fred
    no, the killing was neither high profile nor was it a terrorist act.
    It was absolutely appropriate, considering that it turned out to be impossible to capture him alive and put him on trial.

    The mass celebrations are the problem, they are high profile, those images will be seen in Arab countries where they will radicalise people even more and encourage counter-attacks.

    And the only response to "That'll teach you not to mess with us" is usually "Oh yeah? Let's see about that, shall we".

  12. Erika,
    I guess I did not make my position clear with regard to the "jubilation" in the streets. I abhor that! A person was killed. John Dunne and all that but there should never be that reaction by us for any reason. And yes, when that happens you are right. BUT, the act and the reaction are two different things.
    And yes, the killing of bin Laden would be considered by most, to be a terrorist act. Stop and think, if you were a Pakistani what other conclusion could you draw? What if al-Quiada had sent a small group of well trained, well armed soldiers to kill, say, General Patreus? It is a high profile act desined to strike terror in the hearts of anyone who chooses to do the things bin Laden did. And, one thing is very very certain, bin Laden will never mastermind another terrorist act.

  13. Fred,
    I agree that many radicalised people will see the killing of Bin Laden as a terrorist act. But most people, also in Muslim countries, are perfectly capable of differentiating between a terrorist who indiscriminately kills for no discernible reason and the killing of that same person by people who try to protect their country from future attacks.

  14. "But most people, also in Muslim countries, are perfectly capable of differentiating between a terrorist who indiscriminately kills for no discernible reason and the killing of that same person by people who try to protect their country from future attacks."
    Just like you all do vis-a-vis Israel.

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  17. Hi Mark-

    The problem with trying to understand or discuss the killing of bin Laden is that conventional morals and law just don’t apply. He was a mass murderer in charge of a worldwide band of mass murderers who are actively engaged in continued mass murder. Killing bin Laden was justice flavored with revenge, for sure, but also a heaping portion of preventative action. All in all, I believe last week was a bad week for bad guys, and a good week for the rest of us.

    Would it be nicer to have him in custody and put him on trial? Maybe, but I doubt it. We’d be seeing ten years of legal motions while he gets three hots and a cot, and in the end, some argument over needles being inhumane.

    Last week was also a life lesson in cause and effect. We learned is that if you blow up an airliner over Scotland, or fly airliners into buildings full of people, bad things might happen to you.

    Who knew?


  18. Hooper...good to hear from you! Happy birthday coming up. I agree that trial would have been a mess, not to mention where to keep him until hell froze over and / or how to execute him.

    But then nothing about this is easy, it seems. Necessary, perhaps, but easy, no.

  19. Mark-

    Same to you on your recent birthday...



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