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.
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.]