This pity for bin Laden is just pacifist-nihilism

The chattering-class consensus that it was illegal for America to bump off bin Laden is not as radical as some people think.

Brendan O'Neill

Brendan O'Neill
chief political writer

Topics Politics

The rise and rise of a justice-for-Osama lobby, that collection of lawyers, hacks and priests who believe bin Laden was killed unlawfully, shines a brilliant light on how political consensus is forged today. First there was the act itself, the shooting in Pakistan, which was initially greeted with surprise and some excitement. Then came the first expressions of niggling moral discomfort, aided in no small part by the White House’s failure to provide any meaningful narrative for this event or even to get its facts straight. ‘Are we mobsters?’, asked a British politician; perhaps ‘we’re the terrorists’, mused observers.

Then these doubts were given religious sanction, the blessing of the Church of England, when the Archbishop of Canterbury said the killing left him with an ‘uncomfortable feeling’. This in turn ignited an explosion of handwringing commentary about ‘extrajudicial killings’ and ‘Wild West justice’. Next, emboldened by the cultural elite’s concerns, international lawyers, who are even higher priests than the archbishop when it comes to hurling down commandments from the moral mountain, accused America of adopting ‘the stance of might over right’ and said the killing could set ‘an incredibly dangerous precedent’.

Then, with both heavenly and lawyerly approval, the consensus deepened – though of course, in keeping with many forms of chattering-class conformism these days, it was presented as if it were not a consensus at all but rather a radical stance. A columnist for the Observer described himself as one of ‘those people who rejects consensus’, such as the ‘dancing’ over bin Laden’s death. A Spectator writer asked ‘Am I allowed to say this? Hell, I’m going to anyway’ – before becoming the thousandth journalist in Christendom to say what bishops and lawyers had already said before him: that he felt uncomfortable with the killing of bin Laden and ‘the sight of a mob cheering a death’ (that is, those fratboy parties outside the White House).

Finally, as is the case in all instances of creeping conformism, transgressors from the political script were demonised. The young Yanks who celebrated OBL’s death were described as ‘sickening’ and ‘abhorrent’, even as slaves to evolutionary instincts that the better-minded are capable of transcending: in this case ‘the human taste for vengeance’. These celebrators were treated as political aliens, the new Other, since, in the words of one newspaper editor, they were ‘aping the turbaned barbarians who danced on the night of 11 September’. Thus were the consensus-breakers morally delegitimated, their sentiments presented as mere ‘instincts’ or ‘reflexes’.

And so we arrive at now, at a situation where to make lip-quivering statements about reckless America enacting ‘frontier justice’ against the pitiable bin Laden is the most acceptable thing one can do in public, while to say ‘U-S-A!’ in anything louder than a whisper is treated as tantamount to blasphemy and even as an incitement to the terrorists. As a consequence of America’s failure to narrate the killing of bin Laden in any profound fashion, a gaggle of alternative moral entrepreneurs has swarmed into the political vacuum and forged a new consensus, in which they are allotted the role of morally sensitive beings while the US military and those who support it are depicted as mindless jocks who care nothing for justice.

Well, I don’t buy this script. And not because I’m a fratboy or a supporter of the ‘war on terror’ or of Western intervention in Pakistan and Afghanistan; I’m none of those things. No, I reject the new consensus which says bin Laden’s killing was illegal because it is fuelled by two profoundly problematic political trends. First, by what we might call pacifist-nihilism, a now utterly mainstream aversion to military force based not in political principle but on a moral cowardice which says there is nothing worth taking risks or fighting for. And second by the increasing transformation of war into a crime, by the now widespread notion that warfare can be judged by the rules of civil justice, which is not only wrong – it is also backward.

It is curious that the great and the good, and the radicals who are so swiftly influenced by them, have only become notably agitated by the ‘war on terror’ following the killing of bin Laden. Presumably they don’t have a problem with the numerous drone attacks in Pakistan that have killed other al-Qaeda or Taliban operatives or which have taken out innocent civilians. Certainly they never described those acts as ‘Wild West justice’. The robotic bombing of Pakistani families never seemed to cause our poor OBL-pitying archbishop any sleepless nights. Their selective pity is revealing, because it demonstrates that what really motivates their complaints about ‘frontier justice’ is not Western intervention per se, but rather Western action that might have consequences for them and their prized and privileged lifestyles.

The reason they are exclusively alarmed by the shooting of celebrity Islamist OBL is because they fear its potentially destabilising impact. They have elevated self-preservation into an artform and are driven almost entirely by the cowardly belief that decisive military action against properly famous terrorists could have repercussions here at home. There will be ‘an upsurge in terrorism’, experts warn us. Christopher Meyer, former British ambassador to Washington, frets about ‘another terrorist spasm’. Former London mayor Ken Livingstone says the fratboy celebrations outside the White House ‘would increase the likelihood of a terror attack on London’ (me, me, me). Christophe Barbier, editor of the French weekly L’Express, says these fratboys ‘added provocation to victory’, effectively telling hot-headed Islamists that ‘the ghastly competition continues between them and us’.

Even the supposedly high-minded concern for upholding justice over shoot-to-kill has been underpinned by concern that our denigration of our own values might further inflame bomb-making Arabs. Robert Fisk says the real problem with President Obama’s actions is that they have ‘taught a lesson to the people of the [Arab] region: that executing your opponents is perfectly acceptable’. A columnist for the Observer says many in the West have ‘shunned the principle that justice should be seen to be done’ and that this might further rile Johnny Foreigner; in what could be the slogan of the justice-for-Osama movement, he says: ‘We need to protect ourselves from the aggressive pathogen that corrupted bin Laden and his followers’ minds.’

‘Protect ourselves…’ This is not a principled political movement; it’s a self-protection racket. These thinkers and activists are motivated by the exact same impulse as the man who scurries past a fight in the street: ‘Don’t get involved, you never know what will happen.’ Bereft of political principle, utterly alien to the idea of solidarity with the Pakistanis and Afghans who really have suffered at the hands of the ‘war on terror’, these self-protectionists are disproportionately outraged by the death of OBL because they fear that the Islamist ‘pathogen’ will now spread further and result in another violent ‘spasm’. Of course, the moral cowardice that underpins their ‘uncomfortable feeling’ is rarely expressed explicitly; they do not say ‘we’re a bunch of cowards!’ but rather ‘we are concerned with justice’. The hollowness of that statement, however, its use as a political disguise for self-referential panic, is clear from the fact that they never once complained about the failure to exercise justice against other, less well-known, less pathogen-provoking al-Qaeda figures who were also unilaterally shot or bombed by American forces. No, what this pity-for-OBL lobby represents is pacifist-nihilism, an extremely detached and fear-fuelled outlook which believes in little, if anything, except the protection of the self against the vagaries of modern life and the blowback unleashed by the actions of Western institutions.

The second problem with the justice-for-Osama movement is its insistence on applying the outlook of civil justice to warfare. Terms such as ‘illegal’ and ‘extrajudicial’ are now bandied about, as if those Navy SEALS in Abbottabad were merely armed robbers rather than soldiers acting on certain convictions (however warped you believe those convictions to be). This echoes today’s trend of finding war crimes everywhere, in fact of treating war itself as a crime, where a new and powerful army of international lawyers and human rights activists now pore over the details of every single war to judge whether anybody acted ‘illegally’ and thus should be punished by the self-styled ‘international community’. Today, there’s no such thing as a war in which there are victors and losers – instead conflicts drag on for years, through inquiries and international tribunals, which are charged with working out, not who the moral victors are, but who behaved in accordance with legal norms.

The conflation of war and crime is not the progressive development many believe it to be. It overlooks the fact that in war the stakes are far higher than they are in civil justice. That is why there is a war in the first place: because a profound clash of interests or ideologies could not be worked out in the political arena, far less through the legal system, and so the opposing sides find themselves in that arena in which more extreme action is used than is the case in everyday political discourse: warfare. To apply narrow legal terminology to war is bizarre; if the parties could have worked out who was right and wrong via a tome-wielding lawyer, surely they would have done that in the first place?

The increasing jurifidication of war denudes conflicts of their profound moral and political content and turns them instead into mere technocratic affairs that can be ruled on by judges. Questions of moral authority – of which side is more right, more just – are replaced by the imperative of legal accountability, where its your adherence to external rules that really counts. Echoing the anti-war movement’s cynical preference for discussing the war in Iraq in narrow legal terms rather than as a matter of political principle, now the justice-for-Osama lobby approaches America’s actions in Pakistan in a spectacularly myopic fashion: Was bin Laden’s hand on his gun? How near was he to his gun? Was he vocally given a chance to surrender? Such narrow, technocratic questions displace more profound moral issues. The pity-for-OBL movement is far more comfortable reducing the ‘war on terror’ to the question of what unfolded between one Navy SEAL and one startled jihadist, since this offsets the need for any moral discussion about the motives of the parties to this conflict and the question of why America and others have reached for their guns, not whether or not they did so in one particular shoot-out. With its displacement of morality and its supersession of politics, no one benefits from this transformation of war into crime, except of course international lawyers, who have become the priestly arbiters of global affairs.

Some will say: ‘But the “war on terror” is not a real war and therefore the rules should be different.’ They have a point. But that is surely an argument for opposing the ‘war on terror’ in its entirety, as spiked has been doing since 2001 – opposing its politics of fear, its exaggeration of the Islamist threat, its stoking of real, actual wars in Afghanistan, Iraq and Pakistan. The obsessive focus on one death in this so-called war – which is by no stretch of the imagination the most lamentable death – rather suggests that the critical agitation with America’s actions in Pakistan is driven less by high principle than by low panic about potential consequences. There is no principled stand to take on this particular death; in fact, to do so in isolation to all else is to avoid the broader principled debate about war and terrorism today. If you have never been much concerned about the ‘war on terror’ before, but you now suddenly find yourself uncomfortable or unable to sleep over the killing of OBL, then seriously, you need to get your moral compass mended.

Brendan O’Neill is editor of spiked. Read his personal website here.

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

Topics Politics


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