Publisher's Note — May 19, 2011, 9:45 am

Head-examining After the Osama bin Laden Killing

John R. MacArthur is publisher of Harper’s Magazine and author of the book You Can’t Be President: The Outrageous Barriers to Democracy in America. This column originally appeared in the April 20, 2011 Providence Journal.

There’s much to criticize about the bloody pageant surrounding the killing of Osama bin Laden: the assassination of an unarmed man apparently in front of one of his unarmed wives; the unseemly displays of patriotic fist-pumping by Americans who feel themselves superior to chanting Islamic radicals; the brazen exploitation of the killing by a president already campaigning for re-election, and America’s “alliance” against “terrorism” with Pakistan, a country led by corrupt, double-dealing oligarchs who sell themselves to the highest bidder. (Bin Laden’s “hideout” near the Kakul Military Academy sounds like off-campus housing for a visiting professor.)

But I’m even more disturbed by watching Obama, the supposed anti-Bush, becoming the ex-president — playing the “straight talker” and “decider” on “60 Minutes” better than Bush himself: “Justice was done, and I think anyone who would question that the perpetrator of mass murder on American soil didn’t deserve what he got needs to have their head examined.”

That includes me, since I would have preferred to see bin Laden walked to his arraignment in handcuffs and then placed on trial in a pop-up courtroom in the desert, somewhere between Reno and Las Vegas. Most Americans, including the former constitutional-law professor Obama, believe that our system of justice is better and fairer than, say, Afghanistan’s. So why not demonstrate that equal justice under the law applies to mass murderers, including ones who brag about their crimes? Timothy McVeigh got his day in court, as he should have. Isn’t that what’s supposed to make us more civilized than al-Qaida?

Obama would have been wiser to follow the French government’s example in its treatment of Carlos the Jackal, a notorious terrorist and killer of French intelligence agents who is now mouldering in prison, a largely pathetic and ridiculous figure. Alive but incarcerated for life, Carlos will never be seen as a martyr like bin Laden. But since this is a French idea, it’s clearly crazy, like refusing to invade Iraq. Jacques Chirac and Dominique de Villepin certainly should have had their heads examined.

To be fair, there may also be people in President Obama’s Cabinet who need to have their heads examined. Hillary Clinton best expressed the administration’s increasingly delusional thinking when she suggested that bin Laden’s execution will help the war effort: “In Afghanistan, we will continue taking the fight to al-Qaida and their Taliban allies. . . . Our message to the Taliban remains the same, but today it may have even greater resonance. You cannot wait us out. You cannot defeat us. But you can make the choice to abandon al-Qaida and participate in a peaceful political process.”

That’s a great idea, especially the “peaceful political process” that surely would ensue when Hamid Karzai and his warlords started settling scores with Mullah Omar and his warlords around a conference table. As for the Taliban, it has little interest in al-Qaida’s international aspirations and will also “continue taking the fight” to America to rid Afghanistan of foreign occupation. I want to believe that Clinton is sane enough to read this sort of information in her intelligence reports (or at least in the newspaper), but then she also says that Pakistan is a “democracy.” Maybe the secretary of state had her hand over her mouth in the famous Situation Room photo because Obama’s national-security team was really watching “Patriot Games,” with Harrison Ford. It is a very exciting movie.

Of course, there’s nothing new about U.S. leaders playing tough-guy jingoes and justifying our history of “extra-judicial” killings. It’s no coincidence the CIA gave bin Laden the code name Geronimo, since America’s Wild West culture long ago concluded that the only good Indian is a dead Indian (though at least the real Geronimo was taken prisoner). And it’s clear that our justice system is so degraded by 9/11 and its aftermath that putting bin Laden on trial was probably a political and practical impossibility. Since the CIA used him in the 1980s to help drive the Soviets out of Afghanistan, imagine the character witnesses his lawyers might have called.

Even if there were a few courageous members of Congress to make the case for simple justice, or for prompt exit from Afghanistan, the gibberish gushing from the media would have made it impossible for them to be heard. What can we possibly learn from the bin Laden affair when even the serious press functions as facilitator for self-interested politicians? The best example of this appeared in The New York Times, the day after the government admitted that Osama was unarmed and that he didn’t use one of his wives as a shield, contrary to the previous day’s version in the “paper of record.”

As The Times explained it, “haste” had led to “discrepancies” in the official account. “But the episode also reveals the pressures as the White House, intent on telling a dramatic story about a successful operation, sought to manage a 24-hour news media ravenous for immediate and vivid details.” Oh, those dreadfully ravenous reporters, forcing counter-terrorism chief John Brennan and his bosses to invent things that never happened. Perish the thought that there was a political or P.R. motive in the telling of the bin Laden “take out” tale. Anyone that cynical should have his head examined.

But of all the fantastical media stories on the rubbing out of bin Laden, the most preposterous concern the Pakistani government. One minute they’re our loyal allies; the next they’re perfidious coddlers of evildoers. Recalling the words of Capt. Louis Renault, in the film “Casablanca,” Gen. Ashfaq Parvaiz Kayani, the Pakistani army’s chief of staff, was “shocked, shocked” not only that America invaded his country’s air space uninvited but also that bin Laden was hiding under his very nose. Let’s be honest: The only plausible explanation for the raid’s “success” is that the U.S. finally agreed to pay the Pakistanis more in cash or in kind than they were getting from bin Laden himself or his friends in Saudi Arabia.

What’s more, the nearly $450 billion already spent on Afghanistan in America’s Terrorist Games has been a complete waste of money— exactly the sort of self-defeating expenditure that terrorists like bin Laden have hoped to provoke.

Sadly, American justice and candor— the old-fashioned Humphrey Bogart, Harrison Ford variety— lie at the bottom of the ocean with Osama bin Laden’s corpse.

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