Shot in the Head, Shot in the Arm

By Jeremy Salt – Ankara

The man was not executed. Executions follow due legal process, and here the only process was heavily armed men running upstairs until they found their man and killed him. Unarmed, aging, wearing his night dress, awakened by the sound of shots and the wall downstairs being blown in, Osama was shot through the head, the force of the bullet pushing his brains out of his eye socket, in front of his twelve year old daughter. Not a sight she will ever forget. Although his head was half blown off, he was finished off according to standard military procedure by a shot in the chest. The man who ordered this has daughters of his own. The man who talked of justice having been done was a law professor who knows that for justice to be done, justice has to be seen to be done, which would have meant putting Osama on trial.

That Osama should have been killed in the same week NATO made another attempt to murder Muammar Qadhafi is indicative of a trend rapidly crystallising into shape, form and substance. There is no surprise in states killing enemies of the state but they used to be do it quietly. Now it is open, almost advertised, signalled, sent out across the world as a warning. Even American citizens regarded as terrorist suspects don’t have to be found guilty first. Just like Osama, a bullet in the head or murder by missile will be enough to see that justice is done. A linear path has been followed ever since the administration of George W. Bush introduced a national security strategy based on the deliberate rupture of sovereign rights. States and anyone living inside them would be liable to attack if it was even suspected that they might be used as a base for an attack on the homeland (for which read only the US homeland). The targets could include a government (i.e. the Iraqi government) or individual terrorist suspects and anyone who happened to be near them at the time, in Osama’s case his son and various members of the household, in Afghanistan thousands of civilians as innocent of any crime as the New Yorkers tumbling from the heights of the Twin Towers, in Yemen women and children obliterated in missile strikes. Obama has followed on seamlessly from Bush. To be suspected is sufficient to be killed.

Does ‘collateral damage’ in any way exculpate the guilty for the killing of the innocent, the women and children who happen to be next to  the terrorist suspect and are obliterated with him? Do two wrongs make a right? We are brought up to believe that they don’t. But somehow, in today’s world, they do: don’t attend to the original wrong, just commit another one and that will fix everything. We are going backwards into pre history. The culpability is apparently lessened when  the  killings are activated  at a distance, by the pilot of  a  fighter aircraft or by  someone in uniform lining up the coordinates on a computer in an  operations room somewhere far from the scene  and pressing the button that launches the missile from the drone before going off to lunch or to work out. It’s not them killing the women and children, stupid. It’s the missile.

Reagan tried to kill Qadhafi in the 1980s, missing him but killing his adopted baby daughter and numerous other civilians. Noone except the international lawyers said it was wrong so apparently it wasn’t. Now NATO is now trying again. They are not admitting as much, of course, but that is obviously why they are bombing the Bab al Aziziya compound in Tripoli. They have missed him every time but have succeeded in killing his son and three of his grandchildren, along with numerous other civilians. A few days ago it was 11 imams, killed while attending morning prayers in Brega. The attack on Libya is going exactly where it could be seen to be going from the start. In the name of protecting civilians, NATO is killing them. Noone knows how many soldiers have been killed in the process of ‘degrading’ Libyan ground forces but the number most probably runs into the thousands. They apparently don’t count because of the uniforms.  

Of course NATO expresses regret. Whether in Libya or Afghanistan it always does,  before going on to unintentionally kill more civilians and express more regrets. Noone asks the families of the dead whether this is of any comfort. Noone  pauses to ask what  the hell an organisation created to defend western Europe against attack by the Soviet Union is doing in Afghanistan or Libya. It has certainly been a long time since Afghanistan attacked Denmark and Norway. A  Mafia don would no doubt express regrets if his hit men sprayed a restaurant with bullets and killed women and children along with the intended target. NATO rules, Mafia rules, American rules and French and British rules are melding before our eyes. Gaddafi called the demonstrators rats and now he is the snake whose head has to be cut off. The language degenerates to fit the crime. The old rules – not of no killing but of killing on the quiet – have been jettisoned in favor of the brazen up front approach. Let’s tell the world what we intend to do. These new no rules are the same old one way street. They – the others, those on the receiving end of the missiles killing intentionally or unintentionally, Libyans, Yemenis, Iraqis, Afghans and Palestinians – are not similarly entitled. Theirs is not the right to see that justice is done as they might see it. Noam Chomsky’s image of an Iraqi hit team taking out George Bush and dumping his body in the Atlantic was seen as being tasteless by the celebrants of the murder in Abbottabad. Yet Bush tore apart an entire country in his violent rampage and we don’t have to ask, between the two of them, Bush and Osama, to know who is responsible for the killing of the most innocent people. For justice to be done, and to be seen to be done, both Osama and Bush, and his whole scabrous support team along with him, should have been put on trial. Yet such is the state of the world that while one is dead, lying in his shroud at the bottom of the Arabian Sea, the other relaxes on his ranch in Crawford.

The open killing of enemies outside the law and outside a formal declaration of law is a developing process. The lead was set by Israel with its ‘targeted assassinations’, another euphemism, along with extra judicial killings and summary execution, for murder. The policy was applied over decades in the West Bank and Gaza and, before the phrase was coined, against Palestinian representatives in European capitals, murdered in their offices and apartments.  The media did not object. In fact it was thrilled by these innovative murders, by the daring and technical skill involved. No government ever attempted to take Israel to court for what it was doing, so of course it continued what it was doing. When Palestinians threw a disabled Jewish American, Leon Klinghoffer, overboard from a hijacked luxury liner in his wheelchair, the world was outraged. When Ariel murdered a disabled Palestinian, Ahmad Yassin, in his wheelchair, shredding his body in a missile strike, the world was not outraged. Just over a year ago the Israelis went a step further, murdering a man in his hotel room in Dubai, all but the final throttling captured on CCV cameras. The presence of the cameras did not disturb them. They knew they would be there. They factored them into the crime. Let the world see close up what we are capable of doing and let it know that we don’t care what it thinks. And the world, the western world, responded with quiet approval. The only person arrested in connection with this murder was released on bail by a German court, to disappear back into Israel. Like NATO, Israel insists on the unintentionality of its murders, with the exception of the ‘targeted assassinations’ (which usually take the lives of people nearby anyway). If one of its planes fires a missile at an apartment building, how is the pilot to know people are actually living there? If it kills a Palestinian in his home, how is the pilot to know that his wife and children are with them? 

The open attempts to kill Qadhafi and the murder of Bin Laden take us into a new space. We know what will come next, and in fact it has already come, in the form of the suicide bombing of a military barracks in Pakistan. The Seals who killed Osama are now alarmed that their own families will be threatened.  Anyone involved in the planning and execution of this operation now becomes a target for others who want to see justice done. Their idea of justice is the same as Obama’s, justice outside the law, which, of course, is not justice at all but retribution, in their case, not just for the killing of Osama but for all those Muslims whose deaths in Lebanon, the West Bank, Gaza and Iraq prompted Osama bin Laden to take up arms in the first place. Americans, young Americans, repulsive in their massed triumphalist chanting, gathered in the streets of Washington and New York to celebrate death with cans of beer in their hand. It was a fix, a shot in the arm delivered by the shot in the head, but how will the killing of Bin Laden solve any of the problems that led straight to the bombing of the Twin Towers in the first place?

– Jeremy Salt is associate professor in Middle Eastern History and Politics at Bilkent University in Ankara, Turkey. Previously, he taught at Bosporus University in Istanbul and the University of Melbourne in the Departments of Middle Eastern Studies and Political Science. Professor Salt has written many articles on Middle East issues, particularly Palestine, and was a journalist for The Age newspaper when he lived in Melbourne. He contributed this article to

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