Capital Commentary is the weekly current-affairs publication of CPJ, written to encourage the pursuit of public justice.

Osama bin Laden: Criminal or Enemy Combatant?

Michael J. Gerson


May 6, 2011
by Michael J. Gerson

This is a transcript of a radio address broadcast on KDCR radio in Sioux Center, Iow

This week’s killing of Osama bin Laden ignited celebrations, as well as a public debate on the use of force in the war on terrorism.  To some, this act seemed more like revenge than justice.  They would have preferred to see punishment come after the decision of a jury, not after the decision of the president, who set the rules of engagement that resulted in bin Laden’s death.

The most important moral distinction here is between the commission of a crime and the conduct of a war.  If bin Laden’s acts of mass murder on American soil were crimes—as in the case of the Oklahoma City bombing—then the proper setting for his punishment would be a court.  If the 9/11 attacks were an act of war, then an enemy combatant has a different status.  Pakistan would clearly be a battlefield in this war.  And an enemy commander on the battlefield would not be exempt from the consequences of engaging in warfare against America. 

So which is the best description—crime or war?  I do not believe that the war on terrorism is a metaphor.  Bin Laden declared war against America in a fatwa, supported by a network of followers.  He trained his forces in camps, in cooperation with a foreign government, and conducted a series of escalating operations against American soldiers and government officials, including the attacks on the USS Cole and American embassies in Kenya and Tanzania.  The 9/11 attacks were the culmination of a military campaign against our country, not the work of a criminal.

The nature of warfare has changed in our time.  It can result, not only from the action of nation-states, but also from the aggression of a transnational network.  And al Qaeda’s intentions have been clear—to conduct attacks against America that would destabilize our economy and political system and cause a retreat from the Middle East.  After the liberation of Afghanistan from al Qaeda’s ally, the Taliban, Pakistan has become the main staging area for possible future attacks.  And information found in bin Laden’s compound seems to indicate that future attacks on America were planned. 

This is a different kind of war—but only because our enemy does not recognize any rules of war.  They seek to kill both military personnel and civilians.  And in this conflict, bin Laden was not a civilian, or merely a criminal.  He was a combatant on the main battlefield of a war. 

Presidential decisions are difficult.  Capturing and questioning bin Laden may have yielded more information—though it also might have put American forces at greater risk.  Such choices are wrenching.  But the choice made by President Obama was justified. It was not an act of revenge.  It was a military operation in an ongoing conflict.

Some principled Christians object to all war.  But for those of us who believe there are just wars, President Obama has met the standard.

—Michael J. Gerson is a nationally syndicated columnist who appears twice weekly in The Washington Post and is the author of Heroic Conservatism (2007) and the co-author of City of Man: Religion and Politics in a New Era (2010).




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Capital Commentary is a weekly current-affairs publication of the Center for Public Justice. Published since 1996, it is written to encourage the pursuit of justice. Commentaries do not necessarily represent an official position of the Center for Public Justice but are intended to help advance discussion. Articles, with attribution, may be republished according to our publishing guidelines.”