Why I celebrated an execution

Noam Chomsky thinks that Usama bin Laden’s extra judicial killing should prompt us to consider what our reaction would’ve been if Iraqi commandos had penetrated the White House and executed George W. Bush.

This is one of those rare occasions where I think Chomsky is missing the point. Even though one always gains an interesting perspective by reversing the tables and evaluating our reaction; this particular analogy fails to apply in the case of bin Laden.

The Monopoly of Violence

A state is an institution which claims the monopoly of violence over its domain. Since the dawn of complex society, institutional entities have existed which sought to impose coercive authority over human settlements. Early proto-states are likely to have evolved from roving bandits who settled down once they gained a near monopoly of coercive capability and realized that it was better to rule and tax than to roam and loot. However they evolved, states have bestowed enormous benefits to human society.

This is evident not just in successful societies where strong states coupled with the rule of law and functioning institutions have promoted peace and prosperity. In sub-Saharan Africa, where states routinely fail to ensure a monopoly on coercive capability, the populace is constantly coerced by non-state actors. This doesn’t just stifle peace and commerce, it erodes civil institutions and arrests socio-economic development.

The question of the legitimacy of state power is more subtle.

Legitimacy of state power

When Tamerlane (Timur the great Uzbek conqueror) consolidated control over all of central Asia, he could not proclaim himself Emperor because he lacked Genghis Khan’s blood. In fourteenth century Central Asia, you could make a claim to the throne only if you were a direct descendent of the Great Khan. Tamerlane had to settle for the title of Amir (Prime minister), and maintain a puppet Emperor to rubber stamp his rule.

The point of telling this story was to emphasize how variable the notion of legitimacy has been historically. Throughout most of human history, the principal claim to a legitimate throne was royal blood, indirectly derived from the right of conquest. That is, I am the legitimate claimant of this throne because my great, great grandfather conquered this land and bestowed it with peace and stability.

It was not until the early modern period that the King came to be seen as an embodiment of a people. This was the first sign of the emerging notion of nationalism. A peculiarly European phenomenon until surprisingly recently, Nationalism spread with European conquest around the globe. It would be a stretch to date the emergence of nationalism prior to the 19th century in Latin America, the late 19th century in South and South East Asia, and the 20th century in sub-Saharan Africa.

The notion of a Nation-state: the idea that the state derives its legitimacy and claim to the monopoly of violence from an imagined community called a nation is even newer. Moreover, it is evolving. By now, no matter how much dictators seek to represent a people, anything less that a democracy can hardly be accepted as legitimate.

Legitimate armed struggle against states

This leaves us with the following question. If a state is seen as illegitimate, for instance if its predatory, seen as an alien colonizing power, not representative of the people et cetera; when is it appropriate to conduct an armed struggle to fight to state?

One case is clear. If a community demands independence and formation of their own state and exhausts all peaceful means to obtain it, it is hard to argue that it should be forced to submit to state power. Let’s call this exception the case of a resistance struggle. No one can seriously argue that the American fight for independence was illegitimate. And that was based on the peculiarly American unwillingness to pay taxes. The case for East Timur, South Sudan, Western Sahara, Palestine, Kashmir, and Xinjiang peoples is certainly stronger.

So a revolutionary armed struggle against a state may be justified if one intends to replace it with another, more legitimate state. Note that there is still no hope for justifying revolutionary violence against innocent civilians, and no hope of justifying violence if peaceful means are available. 


Can we distinguish between a resistance struggle and violence by non-state actors? The short answer is that not only that we can, but we must. At the minimum, the slaughter of hundreds of innocent people in the Bali night club bombing, the Mumbai terror attack of 2008, the London Tube bombings and the attack on the World Trade Center in New York; need to be recognized for what they are: terrorism, disconnected from even the vaguest notions of a resistance struggle.

Of course, one should not be blind to state terror. For instance, the American invasion of Iraq and unleashing of massive violence against a helpless population can be strictly classified as state terror. No stretching of Just War theory can convince me that it was legitimate violence. And therefore, one can reasonably argue that Iraqi resistance fighters have the right to conduct an armed struggle against the occupying force.

But al Qaeda is not a resistance force, nor is bin Laden a freedom fighter. The stated goal of creating an Islamic state is not just not credible but misleading. Its not a people rising up in an armed struggle against an illegitimate empire at all. Its a small coterie of radical clerics and fighters who think they have the right to rudely intrude in our world and kill a bunch of people because they are unhappy being impotent. 

In other words, bin Laden was a valid target for police action and one can morally celebrate his capture or killing in an encounter.

Extra-judicial killing

Its entirely possible that the White House gave explicit orders for bin Laden’s assassination even if there was a possibility of capture. This would make it an extra-judicial killing, an execution. Now, executions, even of captured enemy soldiers are a war crime for good reason. There is something particularly disturbing about the cold blooded murder of an unarmed person who is completely under your power.

But I have doubts about whether this is what actually happened. Why was there a standby team of lawyers, interrogators and translators if the plan was to kill bin Laden? Anyway, let us presume that the order was to kill not capture. Can this be justified?

I think it can. The capture or killing of bin Laden was understood to be a really big deal with unpredictable consequences. His capture would have had multiple political and military repercussions, including the possibility of ransoms, unrest among his supporters in highly volatile places et cetera. One can think of this as a purely military decision overriding bin Laden’s right to capture. For example, assassinating Gaddafi to bring the Libyan campaign to a close would be wise military decision. It may be that the commandos find him unarmed so that its closer to an execution than a encounter but it must be seen in the context of the larger situation.

[P.S. I have been really busy over the past few weeks, but now I am back. I hope to write regularly during the summer. The next one is going to be on Saudi Arabia. Stay tuned.] 

[Update: I must confess I would’ve much preferred to capture bin Laden. What I am arguing is that the White House had the authority to decide to take him out, just as much as the Rajasthan Police. Chomsky is right in that the long arm of the law ought to respect the rights of the suspect, modulo military targets in Just War theory. If one is fighting a legitimate war, say the fight against al Qaeda, we need military efficiency. The ability to take out executive leadership in a bid to minimize collateral damage is a good idea. Too bad utopia, welcome to reality.]


Obituary: Usama bin Laden

This is not a personal history of Usama Bin Laden, nor is this an account of Islamist terror or the war on terror. Rather, this is an attempt to place the ideology of bin Laden in a framework that I hope would help in comprehending the phenomena.

The New York Times obituary has the following quote from an interview Usama gave to CNN in 1997:

“[The United States] wants to occupy our countries, steal our resources, impose agents on us to rule us and then wants us to agree to all this. If we refuse to do so, it says we are terrorists. When Palestinian children throw stones against the Israeli occupation, the U.S. says they are terrorists. Whereas when Israel bombed the United Nations building in Lebanon while it was full of children and women, the U.S. stopped any plan to condemn Israel. At the same time that they condemn any Muslim who calls for his rights, they receive the top official of the Irish Republican Army at the White House as a political leader. Wherever we look, we find the U.S. as the leader of terrorism and crime in the world.”

To understand Usama bin Laden, Islamist terror and Arab rage we need to ask the right questions. Here is the most important one:

What went wrong?

While Europe was engulfed in the Dark ages, the Islamic world was the center of a global civilization. It inherited the knowledge and skills of the ancient civilizations of the fertile crescent, Greece, Persia and India. For centuries, the boundaries of Civilization were marked by the frontiers of the Islamic world. Underwritten by military and technological superiority, Islam spread its dominion from Spain in the West to China in the East. Europeans were regarded as barbarians with nothing to offer in terms of ideas or technology. Christianity was seen as version 2.0 of the Abrahamic tradition, Judaism being the original and Islam being the final one. 

The rise of Western Europe can be traced to the aftermath of the Black Death. There was a sustained rise in per capita income and urbanization in the pre-industrial period 1350-1700 A.D. The discovery of the New World in 1492 led to a sustained period of capitalist development driven by the interaction of late medieval institutions and colonial trade. Europe had probably overtaken the Islamic world in wealth and trade by the beginning of the 16th century and by the turn of the century it was far superior technologically and militarily. 

This was brought home in the classic way: as a Lesson of the Battlefield in the year 1699. With the defeat of the Ottoman empire and the signing of the Treaty of Carlowitz in that year, the superiority of Western power belatedly entered Muslim consciousness. Up until then, the uppity powers to the West had gone more or less unnoticed. Bernard Lewis writes in his seminal work, What went wrong?

“The Renaissance, the Reformation, and the technological revolution passed virtually unnoticed in the lands of Islam, where they were still inclined to dismiss the denizens of the lands beyond the Western frontier as benighted barbarians, much inferior even to the more sophisticated Asian infidels to the East.

. . .  With the crumbling of the language barrier came an increased recognition and more intimate awareness of European strength and wealth. The question now became more urgent–what was the source of this strength, the talisman of Western success?”

As happened elsewhere, the proximate cause of Western military superiority was identified with Western technology and military practice, and these were rapidly copied. Such measures failed to halt the growing power inequality and the West came to dominate the Islamic world completely towards the end of the 19th century. With the spread of Western education and the printing press, there were moves to identify the source of Western strength in market capitalist and liberal social institutions. As the ideas of nationalism, secularism and liberty penetrated Muslim consciousness, efforts were made to modernize and/or Westernize ossified Arab societies. These were met with variable degrees of success in terms of creating modern societies in the Middle East and North Africa but failed to contain Western dominance. The immediate post-war period saw decolonization on a massive scale and the emergence of autonomous states in the region. But most regimes remained under Western tutelage, which by now meant the United States. 

The bin Laden doctrine

The notion that Arab and Muslim impotence in the face of Western power was ultimately due to Arab/Muslim decadence and turning away from Islam has been around for centuries. In fact, this has been traditional response to the question. For such traditionalists, the appropriate response is not Westernization but rather purification. That is, to regain the vitality of the Golden Age of Islam, we need to purify Muslim societies and return to a purer form of Islam.

Usama bin Laden wove this argument into a narrative of anti-imperialist resistance and combined this potent mix with the legacy of the fidayeen. The Assassins (from the Arabic Hashishiyya) were a puritanical Muslim sect in the 12th century. The called themselves the fidayeen, meaning those who were willing to sacrifice their lives for the cause. They tried to assassinate Muslim rulers they considered impious and debauch. The term was adopted again in the 20th century by terrorists in Turkey, Iran and the militant wing of the PLO. But while the Assassins carried out targeted killings, the modern fidayeen attacked civilian populations. But even these terrorists were nationalists seeking political rights. The origin of Islamist terror is more recent. 

The Soviet invasion of Afghanistan prompted the CIA to support the Islamist resistance forces, the Mujahideen. Soviet weapons captured by the Israelis from Egyptian forces were transferred via the ISI to the Mujahideen. Radical Islamists flocked to Afghanistan from all over the Islamic world to fight the Godless communists. Many came from the Wahhabi schools in Saudi Arabia, including bin Laden. At the end of the occupation, there was a standing army of battle hardened and radicalized Islamist militants who then spread out like a cancer to the rest of the world: Kashmir, Chechnya, Philippines, Pakistan, Indonesia, Britain, Yemen, Saudi Arabia and eventually, of course, the United States itself.

The Arab Spring

The revolution taking place on Arab streets is a clear rejection of the bin Laden doctrine. The young, educated revolutionaries recognize that the Western ideas of political liberty, personal freedom, accountable governance and political participation are Western discoveries not inventions. They are tired of living in predatory unaccountable tyrannies. Now, more than ever, they envy the Free world and want the same freedoms that Westerners enjoy.

They want institutions that put them on the road to prosperity. By now, its well understood that the source of Western power and prosperity is institutional structures: the most important of which is liberty. The right of man to be free of harassment from a predatory state may not be God given, but it surely lies at the heart of the vitality of a society. Mohammed Bouazizi burned himself in Tunisia and set the Arab world aflame for precisely this freedom. 

The Economist has a page on the reaction in the Arab press to bin Laden’s death. They quote from an independent Egyptian daily, al-Shorouq, where Imad Eddin Hussein condemns Mr bin Laden and his approach to Islamic liberation as an utter failure:

“God have mercy on Osama bin Laden… He did everything he thought he could to serve the Muslim cause. But in the end, if America and Israel had launched a multi-trillion dollar campaign to demonise Muslims, they couldn’t have done a better job… Al-Qaeda ended up killing more Muslims than anyone else. They inflicted indescribable damage on the Muslim nation, while failing to inflict any real damage on the West…For us to confront the West, we need to be strong. But we will only become strong when we become free, well-educated citizens of democratic nations. If we could achieve that, Israel would not be able to push us around—the West would not be able to occupy our lands. Who knows—maybe they would start giving us the respect we deserve without us having to fire a single shot. But for us to simplistically reduce our relationship with the West either to complete subordination (à la Hosni Mubarak) or perpetual clash (as bin Laden would have had it)—that is the real tragedy.” [Emphasis mine.]

There are still many in Washington who fear democracy in the Arab world. They fear that power may pass into the hands of Islamists. Policymakers worry about loss of control over the most strategically important region on the globe. Such fears are overblown. Here is why:

U.S. dominance of the Persian Gulf and the rest of the Middle East is not dependent on friendly petro-dictators. It follows from the fact of overwhelming U.S. power. In fact, U.S. backed authoritarian regimes are more fragile than democracies. Moreover, these regimes have to support Islamists themselves for political survival. Even the appearance of Western tutelage undercuts the moderate reformers and strengthens the hands of Islamists and radicals who want to confront America rather than pursue prosperity at home. Furthermore, it directly plays into the bin Laden narrative. 

The United States has already spent at least 3 trillion dollars in hunting for bin Laden and the fight against Islamist terror. Killing his dream would be much cheaper: stay on the right side of history by supporting the protestors not the despots. Especially where you have most control like Bahrain, Saudi Arabia and Yemen.  

This is so obvious that even the Economist approves