Reflections on a Flamewar (May 14, 2011)
Spoiler: Actual change of opinion below! You’ll need to read to the end, though.
I’ve learned that the only way to find out who reads this blog is to criticize famous people. For example, when I criticized Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged, legions of Objectivist readers appeared out of nowhere to hammer me in the comments section, while the left-wing readers were silent. Now that I criticize Chomsky (or originally, mainly just quoted him), I’m getting firebombed in the comments section by Chomsky fans, with only a few brave souls showing up from the right flank to offer reinforcements. One would imagine that, on at least one of these topics, more readers must agree with me than are making themselves heard in the comments—but maybe I just have the rare gift of writing in a way that enrages everyone!
Yesterday, I found myself trying to be extra-nice to people I met, as if to reassure myself that I wasn’t the monster some of the Chomskyan commenters portrayed me as. I told myself that, if agreeing with President Obama’s decision to target bin Laden made me a barbarian unworthy of civilization, then at least I’d have the likes of Salman Rushdie, Christopher Hitchens, and Jon Stewart with me in hell—better company than Sean Hannity and Rush Limbaugh.
In my view, one of the reasons the discussion was so heated is that two extremely different questions got conflated (leaving aside the third question of whether al Qaeda was “really” responsible for 9/11, which I find unworthy of discussion).
The first question is whether, as Chomsky suggests, the US government is “uncontroversially” a “vastly” worse terrorist organization than al Qaeda, since it’s caused many more civilian deaths. On this, my opinion is unchanged: the answer is a flat-out no. There is a fundamental reason, having nothing to do with nationalist prejudices, why Osama bin Laden was much more evil than Henry Kissinger, Donald Rumsfeld, Dick Cheney, and George W. Bush combined. The reason is one that Chomsky and his supporters find easy to elide, since—like many other facts about the actual world—it requires considering hypothetical scenarios.
Give Kissinger, Rumsfeld, Cheney, and Bush magic dials that let them adjust the number of civilian casualties they inflict, consistent with achieving their (partly-justified and largely-foolish) military goals. As odious as those men are, who can deny that they turn the dial to zero? By contrast, give bin Laden a dial that lets him adjust the number of Jews, Americans, and apostates he kills, and what do you think the chances are that he turns it from 3000 up to 300 million, or “infinity”? But if, implausibly (in my view), one maintains that bin Laden would have preferred not to kill any civilians, provided that he could magically attain his goal of imposing Sharia law on the world, then the crux of the matter is simply that I don’t want to live under Sharia law: I even prefer living in George W. Bush’s America. (One obvious reason these hypotheticals matter is that, once the Jihadists get access to nuclear weapons, the dial is no longer particularly hypothetical at all.)
So much for the first question. The second, and to me much more worthwhile question, is whether the US should have made a more strenuous effort to capture bin Laden alive and try him, rather than executing him on the spot. (Of course, part of the problem is that we don’t really understand how strenuous of an effort the SEAL team did make. However, let’s suppose, for the sake of an interesting question, that it wasn’t very strenuous.) It’s on this second question that my views have changed.
My original reasoning was as follows: the purpose of a trial is to bring facts to light, but this is an unusual case in which the entire world has known the facts for a decade (and the “defendant” agrees to the facts, having openly declared war on the West). It’s almost impossible to conceive of a person who would be convinced after a trial of bin Laden’s guilt, who wasn’t already convinced of it now. The people who need convincing—such as Jihadists and 9/11 conspiracy theorists—are people who can never be convinced, for fundamental reasons. Therefore, while a trial would have been fine—if bin Laden had come out with his hands up, or (let’s suppose) turned himself in, at any point during the last decade—a bullet to the head was fine as well.
To put it differently: trials struck me as merely a means to the end of justice, just as college courses are merely a means to the end of learnin’. Now personally, I always favor letting a student skip a course if it’s obvious that the student already knows the material—even if that means bending university rules. It stands to reason, then, that I should similarly favor letting a government skip a trial if the verdict is already obvious to the entire sane world.
Many commenters made arguments against this viewpoint—often phrased in terms of bin Laden’s “rights”—that did nothing to persuade me. The one argument that did ultimately persuade me was that, at least for some people, trials are not just a means to an end: they’re an end in themselves, a moving demonstration of the superiority of our system to the Nazis’ and the Jihadists’. Here’s how a reader named Steve E put it, in a personal email that he’s kindly allowed me to quote:
I wonder what you think of the proposition that the Jews of Norwich [the victims of the first blood libel, in 1190] would have preferred a show trial to the mob justice they received. I’m not sure of this proposition, because I could also see a show trial being somehow worse, but on the other hand wouldn’t we all prefer a real trial to a show trial and a show trial to no trial when our lives hang in the balance? Trials perform a nontrivial service even if they don’t convince anyone who is not already convinced, just as human babies perform a nontrivial service even if they have no use, and particle colliders perform a nontrivial service even if they don’t defend our nation. Trials make our nation worth defending; they, like human babies, have intrinsic value not just for their potential. In this case, it may be true that giving bin Laden a trial would have been a bonus rather than a requirement, but wouldn’t you agree that it’d have been a bonus? Trying Osama bin Laden would have shown our moral high ground, maybe not to some who can’t be convinced of America’s goodness, but it would have done so for me! (I’m very proud that Israel tried Eichmann, not just because it showed the world about the Holocaust, but also because it showed me about Israel’s character. Let people react to the trial as they may. That trial had meaning to me.)
And so I’ve decided that, while assassinating bin Laden was vastly better than leaving him at large, and I applaud the success of the operation, it would’ve been even better if he’d been captured alive and tried—even if that’s not what bin Laden himself wanted. For the sake of people like Steve E.
It’s increasingly clear that the operation was a planned assassination, multiply violating elementary norms of international law. There appears to have been no attempt to apprehend the unarmed victim, as presumably could have been done by 80 commandos facing virtually no opposition—except, they claim, from his wife, who lunged towards them. In societies that profess some respect for law, suspects are apprehended and brought to fair trial. I stress “suspects.” In April 2002, the head of the FBI, Robert Mueller, informed the press that after the most intensive investigation in history, the FBI could say no more than that it “believed” that the plot was hatched in Afghanistan, though implemented in the UAE and Germany. What they only believed in April 2002, they obviously didn’t know 8 months earlier, when Washington dismissed tentative offers by the Taliban (how serious, we do not know, because they were instantly dismissed) to extradite bin Laden if they were presented with evidence—which, as we soon learned, Washington didn’t have. Thus Obama was simply lying when he said, in his White House statement, that “we quickly learned that the 9/11 attacks were carried out by al Qaeda.”
Nothing serious has been provided since. There is much talk of bin Laden’s “confession,” but that is rather like my confession that I won the Boston Marathon. He boasted of what he regarded as a great achievement.
There is also much media discussion of Washington’s anger that Pakistan didn’t turn over bin Laden, though surely elements of the military and security forces were aware of his presence in Abbottabad. Less is said about Pakistani anger that the U.S. invaded their territory to carry out a political assassination…
We might ask ourselves how we would be reacting if Iraqi commandos landed at George W. Bush’s compound, assassinated him, and dumped his body in the Atlantic. Uncontroversially, his crimes vastly exceed bin Laden’s, and he is not a “suspect” but uncontroversially the “decider” who gave the orders to commit the “supreme international crime differing only from other war crimes in that it contains within itself the accumulated evil of the whole” (quoting the Nuremberg Tribunal) for which Nazi criminals were hanged…
There is much more to say, but even the most obvious and elementary facts should provide us with a good deal to think about.
Shortly after I got into office, I brought [CIA director] Leon Panetta privately into the Oval Office and I said to him, “We need to redouble our efforts in hunting bin Laden down. And I want us to start putting more resources, more focus, and more urgency into that mission” …
We had multiple meetings in the Situation Room in which we would map out — and we would actually have a model of the compound and discuss how this operation might proceed, and what various options there were because there was more than one way in which we might go about this.
And in some ways sending in choppers and actually puttin’ our guys on the ground entailed some greater risks than some other options. I thought it was important, though, for us to be able to say that we’d definitely got the guy. We thought that it was important for us to be able to exploit potential information that was on the ground in the compound if it did turn out to be him.
We thought that it was important for us not only to protect the lives of our guys, but also to try to minimize collateral damage in the region because this was in a residential neighborhood …
You know one of the things that we’ve done here is to build a team that is collegial and where everybody speaks their mind … And so the fact that there were some who voiced doubts about this approach was invaluable, because it meant the plan was sharper, it meant that we had thought through all of our options, it meant that when I finally did make the decision, I was making it based on the very best information …
As nervous as I was about this whole process, the one thing I didn’t lose sleep over was the possibility of taking bin Laden out. Justice was done. And I think that 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.
Update (May 11): Commenter “B” makes a wonderful point. If Osama’s statements aren’t enough to convince Chomsky that al Qaeda was behind the 9/11 attacks, then why are Obama’s statements enough to convince Chomsky that the US was behind the raid in Abbottabad?
Update (May 12): Many of you have asked me to get back to quantum complexity theory, or some other topic that we know more about (or rather: that other people know less about). Don’t worry, BQP’s a-comin’! But in the meantime, I wanted to thank all of you (especially the ones who disagreed with me) for a genuinely interesting discussion. I haven’t been forced to think so much about the philosophical underpinnings of vigilante justice since watching the Batman and Spiderman movies…