Americans rejoiced at news of the end of this psychopathic mass murderer, and, privately, are probably relieved that he was not to be captured and extradited to Guantanamo. If bin Laden had been taken alive, we might be revisiting the controversy surrounding the Obama administration's failed efforts to try in a civilian federal court bin Laden's subordinate, Khalid Sheikh Mohammed -- the master planner behind 9/11.
But what, exactly, are the moral, legal or practical rules in going after terrorist leaders or the savage dictators of rogue regimes? We went into a foreign country to kill, not capture, bin Laden. Was that killing permissible since a firefight preceded it, or because he was a terrorist rather than a head of state?
Furor surrounded the waterboarding of Mohammed that purportedly resulted in valuable intelligence about future terrorist operations. But why was that considered immoral and illegal when we routinely act as judge, jury and executioner of suspected terrorists through predator drone attacks inside Pakistan?
Mohammed, a confessed killer, was one of just three detainees waterboarded. In contrast, we have executed from the air well over 1,500 suspected terrorists by Predators. President Obama has ordered four times as many drone attacks in the last two years as former President Bush did in eight. Are those killings more constitutionally suspect than Bush's treatment of the three terrorists at Guantanamo?
Last week, NATO warplanes deliberately targeted Muammar Gadhafi's family compound and residence in Tripoli, purportedly killing the dictator's youngest son, Saif. A surviving son, also named Saif, not long ago was a Western darling who bought a doctorate from the London School of Economics, and wined and dined Western intellectuals and oil executives. At what point do dictators' sons devolve from darlings to demons?
The United States had just days earlier sent two predator drones to Libya -- no doubt to help the British and French focus their attacks on the Gadhafi family. Are such targeted airborne assassinations the type of killings expressly forbidden by U.S. law? Or are they permissible on the grounds that enemy dictators are military commanders -- and their fortified homes are thus legitimate wartime targets?
Could we then legally, morally or practically drop a team in Tripoli to kill Gadhafi and his son in the manner that we killed bin Laden and his son? What are the rules that govern the killing of enemy leaders?