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Tim Farron is right: Osama Bin Laden’s death was not a tragedy

September 2, 2015 11:31 AM
By Mark Wright in Liberal Democrat Voice
Originally published by East Midlands Liberal Democrats

Tim Farron was widely quoted on Monday, for perhaps the first time since his election as leader. The good news is that he was correct in his point. He was responding to a resurfaced quote from Labour leadership favourite, Jeremy Corbyn, who has said to Iranian TV that Bin Laden's death was "a tragedy", as it was unlawful and he should have been put on trial instead.

That the killing of Bin Laden was illegal has been a favourite proposition of the Galloway-ite hard left, so it isn't a surprise to see them jump up and defend Corbyn. But I was surprised to see a few serious liberals, including Paddy Ashdown in the past, also voice this and criticise Tim for his intervention.

Their premise is that Bin Laden was a common criminal, and thus "due process" should have been followed, with him legally arrested and brought to trial. But this view is based on a foundation that is both legally dubious, and naive in practicability.

Acres of legal opinion have been written about the legal status of the conflict with Al Qaeda and ISIS in the last decade, and suffice to say there is no settled legal answer, but a liberal would do well to use to use common sense and liberalism to pick a legally well-supported and consistent position here. The fact that the American military has been picking and choosing whether it treats the situation as a war or a criminal matter (or neither, sometimes) is both unhelpful and wrong, but shouldn't affect hour we assess the situation.

At the base of this is the question of whether the USA and Al Qaeda are "at war". Osama Bin Laden and Al Qaeda publicly declared war on the USA in August 1996, reiterated in February 1998, in two Fatwas, sometimes called the Ladenese epistle. President George W Bush declared de-facto war on Al Qaeda on September 20th, 2001, nine days after 9/11. Since then, both entities have been locked in a clear military confrontation. This is a reasonably sound basis for a legal "war", and we should behave accordingly. In addition, anyone saying inmates of Guantanamo should be under the legal protections of POW status (a strong legal opinion that I agree with) is implicitly agreeing that a de-facto war is in effect.

What this means is that the military personnel and leaders of both entities are legal targets for the other, and because of that the only "due process" is a positive identification - after that, targets may be killed on sight. The refusal of groups like Al Qaeda to wear uniforms makes identification more difficult, but in the case of Bin Laden himself a facial identification was sufficient.

As it happens, the CIA would probably have loved to get hold of Bin Laden alive, as he knew a lot about Al Qaeda. But would doing this have been plausible?

Sending your own soldiers into a nest of suicide bombers, which is likely booby-trapped, in order to apprehend individuals who may be wired to explode, is an astonishingly risky thing to do. Irresponsibly risky in fact - because deliberately gambling dozens of good people to try to save one mass murderer is morally wrong, and I certainty don't blame the Americans for refusing to do that. We also know from the genuinely "tragic" case of Jean Charles De Menezes that the security forces have determined the only way to deal with someone believed being wired for suicide is multiple head-shots. There is no plausible way to arrest such a person.

So the killing of Bin Laden was not only legal, is was the only plausible and most moral way of putting an end to his murderous activities. Corbyn is misguided, even more so because - as usual - he plays into the hands of terrorist sympathisers, and Tim was right to criticise him.

* Dr Mark Wright is a councillor in Bristol and was the 2015 general election Parliamentary candidate for Bristol South.

Read more by Mark Wright or more about extra-judicial killing, osama bin laden or tim farron.