Thursday, 5 May 2011

Osama bin Laden, the Archbishop, and Magna Carta

Dr. Rowan Williams, the Archbishop of Canterbury, has recently said that he was uncomfortable about the way that Osama bin Laden was killed.

According to the Daily Telegraph, when asked at a press conference whether he thought the US had been right to kill bin Laden, he initially declined to respond, but later replied: "I think the killing of an unarmed man is always going to leave a very uncomfortable feeling, because it doesn’t look as if justice is seen to be done in those circumstances."

I must confess that while my concerns are not exactly the same as the Archbishop's, my belief in due process ["Due process holds the government subservient to the law of the land protecting individual persons from the state. When a government harms a person without following the exact course of the law it constitutes a due process violation which offends against the rule of law." (Wikipedia)] does make me somewhat uncomfortable with the whole business.

According to clause 29 of the Magna Carta, which is, I understand, one of three clauses still in force in English law,
"NO Freeman shall be taken or imprisoned, or be disseised of his Freehold, or Liberties, or free Customs, or be outlawed, or exiled, or any other wise destroyed; nor will We not pass upon him, nor condemn him, but by lawful judgment of his Peers, or by the Law of the Land. We will sell to no man, we will not deny or defer to any man either Justice or Right."

OK - I know that Osama bin Laden was not an English Freeman, and that it is generally accepted that he had committed mass murder of hundreds of innocent people, and that what he got was exactly what he gave to others, and was what he deserved, and that it could be said that this happened in the course of fighting a war, and that he was, apparently, resisting arrest.

That last fact, of course, is the key. He was resisting arrest. Had he surrendered, he would have been taken alive. Hence, the US Attorney General, Eric Holder, said:"Let me make something very clear, the operation in which Osama bin Laden was killed was lawful. . . . If he had surrendered, attempted to surrender, I think we should obviously have accepted that, but there was no indication that he wanted to do that and therefore his killing was appropriate."

Does the fact that he was resisting arrest mean that it was appropriate to kill him? Not, in an of itself, it doesn't. Not in the United Kingdom, nor in the USA. Shooting him dead could only be justified if it was done in self-defence, i.e. if he was a threat to the life of one of the Navy Seals. Resisting arrest does not justify shooting dead a suspect, even if he is a mass murderer.

However, as the Archbishop pointed out, he was unarmed.

Which is why I too, am uncomfortable. I am realise that the US Attorney General knows much more about the law than I do, but it does seem to me that very little effort was made to follow due process.


patently said...

Yes, I'm equally uncomfortable.

If they went in in order to apprehend him, but prepared to open fire if threatened, then I'm ok with that. If they went in with instructions to kill him, grab any available intel, and get out, then I'm very much not ok with that.

The fact he was (apparently) unarmed is one factor, but not conclusive imho. If I was faced with Bin Laden in a long flowing robe that might conceal anything, claiming that he was unarmed, I might well not believe him. I'm not keen to second-guess the guys who were there, on the spot; it's not an enviable job.

Sadly, we'll never know - the case is far too sensitive to be independently investigated, and far too high-profile for the results of an independent investigation ever to be universally believed.

I fear that the precedent will be used by others, though.

Young Mr. Brown said...

Thanks for that, Patently.

It is good to get the perspective of someone who knows a lot more about the law than I do.

Perhaps the Navy Seals were right to shoot him. Perhaps they were not. We just will never know. We can't condemn, but we can be uncomfortable.

Domain registration said...

This is only a way to kill this type of people,

Frank said...

I can't believe the pious drivel which flows from the bearded wonder in Lambeth.

Ben Laden was guilty. He boasted of what he had done to the west on September 11th and elsewhere. He was also boasting of what else he was going to do. He was an evil murderer.
Above all, he had declared war on the west. As such, it is not right to treat him like a common criminal. These men have on many previous occasions cried surrender, and then set off explosives. Why should the Seals take any further unnecessary risk of life, just to be nice to that squirming fool Rowan Williams, and the like.
Finally, pause and think on this.
Osama, is in custody somewhere.
Suddenly all sorts of kidnapping of western women and children start to happen. This is not being done like previous attacks with the attempt at the maximum carnage. They are not even major protected targets, like royalty or politicians.
They are just the innocent bystanders that Al Qaeda is happy to slaughter as a step towards his objective.

Their demand is simply the release of Ben Laden. There is no negotiation because the kidnappers are most happy to die along with their hostages, and there are endless supplies of willing martyrs desiring to be a hero for the cause, so any failed kidnapping just makes space for the next hero to step into his shoes. It does not even need any central control. It spontaneously happens, and once it starts, others soon jump on the bandwagon. It spreads like wild fire across the world fanned into flame by the media.
Death upon death upon death. Suddenly they have the world's attention, even more than before.

I think the Navy Seals absolutely did the one and only wise thing they could.