Q - Was it ethical to kill Muammar Kaddafy and Osama bin Laden on the spot, apparently in cold blood, rather than arrest them and bring them to trial? Didn’t it work for Iraq to try Saddam Hussein?
A – Yes, it was ethical to kill them right then and there.
It would have been nice to bring both to trial, but in both cases, it would also have been impractical and dangerous. The trial of Saddam Hussein proved cathartic to the Iraqi people and a boost to the nascent Iraqi justice system. But in Baghdad the Americans kept watch over the prisoner and the process to keep nefarious parties at bay. Such was not the case in Libya, where Kaddafy’s compatriots were still fighting to the finish on the day he was killed. Meanwhile, bin Laden’s buddies would have gone to great lengths to disrupt a trial, likely killing, maiming and kidnapping many along the way. Who knows what his Pakistani protectors would have done.
Think about it. If one Israeli soldier was traded for a thousand unknown terrorists, how many innocents would have been kidnapped to exchange for these prize prisoners?
Since the Shalit deal, in fact, some Israelis have argued for capital punishment for terrorists. They argue that imprisonment is hardly an impediment these days, given the current “rate of exchange” of a thousand to one. But the Israeli judiciary’s dedication to due process and the lack of capital punishment should not give too much comfort to those bent on terror – because Israeli drones are not nearly so charitable, and its security services have ways of making ticking-bomb terrorists disappear. The “ticking bomb” ethical scenario has been used to justify targeted killings and torture. This approach provides ample deterrence. Still, it is comforting to know that once terrorists are taken prisoner, Israel follows the norms of civilized nations ruled by law and protects the rights of prisoners to be kept alive and given a fair trial (with one controversial exception – the Bus 300 affair in 1984).
Gone are the days of Nuremberg Trial; those postwar proceedings neatly closed the door on a genocidal era that had commenced with the racist laws enacted in the same city just over a decade before. Perfectly symmetrical – what began in Nuremburg ended there. There was no such tidy culmination for families of the victims of 9/11 or Lockerbie, with no trial for the ringleaders. But the facts of those crimes were incontrovertible long before the prime perpetrators were killed, the guilt long since proven, confessed and even boasted, without need of a trial. History will be the ultimate judge of Kaddafy and bin laden. No jury is necessary.
Killing those two likely saved many lives, so on utilitarian grounds alone these were defensible acts, especially in wartime. That Kaddafy and bin Laden were also monsters responsible for the deaths of thousands only serves to further justify their treatment. They needed to be eliminated and buried in secrecy, so that they and their movements might be simultaneously snuffed out.