Last Sunday night, the entire nation held its breath.
There was a collective exhale when President Barack Obama, after keeping us on the edge of our seats for more than an hour, finally came to the podium set up in the East Wing of the White House to announce that Osama bin Laden was dead.
Coming on the heels of the announcement that Moammar Gaddafi’s youngest son and three grandsons had been killed in Libya just days before, the fact that it was bin Laden who had been killed took many by surprise, though not news the many social networkers who had spread the word minutes before.
It was a May Day alert like none we’ve had in recent memory, a truly special moment for those who had friends and loved ones among the 3,000 or so people killed during the 9/11 attacks, a tragedy masterminded by bin Laden.
But four days after he was killed by Navy SEALs in Abbottabad, Pakistan, some 35 miles from the capital city of Islamabad, details of the raid on Bin Laden’s compound (first reported as a mansion) were still not clear.
The president, Vice President Joe Biden, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, Brigadier General Marshall B. Webb and other national security team members watched over the weekend as the mission played out in real time. The most recent account, from Leon Panetta, the CIA chief, describes that bin Laden was unarmed at the time and thus had not participated in the early morning firefight as SEALs invaded the compound, killing four occupants, one of whom was bin Laden’s son, and wounding two women, including one of bin Laden’s wives.
Moreover, it has been clarified that bin Laden did not use his wife as a shield, as was highlighted in the first accounts.
Whether or not the assassination violates United States law under Executive Order 11905, issued by President Gerald Ford in 1976 and upheld by every president since, is an open question. It is legal for the government to try to capture an acknowledged political terrorist, and legal scholars say that, as long as the Navy SEALs were fired upon first, the killing of bin Laden and the others would in fact be legal.
And since bin Laden, who was reportedly shot through the eye, was buried at sea in order to follow Muslim custom and eliminate the possibility of having a shrine for his followers, concerns from some Arab observers have arisen about whether he was actually killed. The Pentagon is still debating whether a photo of his dead body will be released, citing it as too grisly for public consumption.
During his address to the nation, watched by more than 56 million Americans, the president recounted some of the prolonged history that finally led them to bin Laden. He said, “Shortly after taking office, I directed Leon Panetta, the director of the CIA, to make the killing or capture of bin Laden the top priority of our war against al-Qaeda, even as we continued our broader efforts to disrupt, dismantle, and defeat his network.
“Then, last August, after years of painstaking work by our intelligence community,” Obama continued, “I was briefed on a possible lead to Bin Laden. It was far from certain, and it took many months to run this thread to ground. I met repeatedly with my national security team as we developed more information about the possibility that we had located bin Laden hiding within a compound deep inside of Pakistan.
“And finally, last week,” he concluded, “I determined that we had enough intelligence to take action, and authorized an operation to get Osama bin Laden and bring him to justice.”
Outside the White House a cheering crowd could be heard as he spoke, some singing the National Anthem, others shouting their praise for the president, hoisting signs of approval and American flags.
Meanwhile, thousands of students assembled in Pakistan, denouncing the killing and shouting angry slogans about the USA and Obama. Several commentators questioned the legality of the raid under international law, which was done without the consent of the Pakistani government. Others questioned the mission’s code name, “Geronimo,” which reminds many Native Americans of their near-extermination.
But for every protester in the streets of Pakistan–and many are puzzled at how bin Laden could have lived for so long undetected within a stone’s throw of a major military installation–there were millions of Americans who were overjoyed. Even those Republicans who have been critical of Obama’s foreign policy found it impossible not to congratulate him.
“I give the president full credit for this–it took a lot of guts,” said House Homeland Security Committee Chairman Peter King (R-NY). King’s district was home to dozens of New York City firefighters and cops killed in the attack on the World Trade Center. “He’s the commander-in-chief, he was the guy who put it on the line. There was no guarantee–none–that this would work. We could have had our helicopters shot down…It was a really delicate operation.”
He was referring to the botched raid on Somalia in 1993, the ill-fated “Blackhawk Down” event, and the humiliation of the American soldiers who were dragged through the streets of the East African nation.
But King also took the opportunity to inject some of his own political ideology into the moment by observing that critical information that led CIA agents to one of bin Laden’s main couriers was obtained from water-boarding detainees at Guantanamo Bay. The facility still holds more than 170 “enemy combatants” years after Obama made its closure one of his key policy promises.
Author/activist Jeremy Scahill, appearing on MSNBC, dismissed the suggestion, saying that the information was obtained long after charges of torture were made during the Bush administration.
“On behalf of the citizens of Lower Manhattan, I commend President Obama and the administration for their commitment to keeping the promise made to us on September 11, 2001,” said Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver in a press release. “We salute the courageous men and women of our armed services who have sacrificed so much to bring bin Laden to justice and who continue to fight terrorism around the world. Although this face of terrorism has been relegated to the pages of history, we cannot let down our guard. Our resolve to eradicate terrorism–root and branch–must remain firm.”
The possibility of retaliation was something Obama stressed and the nation has every reason to be on alert, particularly in view of the recent WikiLeaks report that indicated al-Qaeda had promised a “nuclear firestorm” if bin Laden was captured or killed.
Senate Democratic Leader John Sampson said the death of bin Laden is a teaching moment and a time for unity. “We must use this as an opportunity to come together as we did after September 11. We must remain united in our hope for peace and in our commitment to securing our communities and our country. And we must always remain committed to protecting the blessing of liberty that is the birthright of all humankind.”
How this will play out for Obama and the 2012 election is certainly a point of interest for Republicans, though the president has been resolute about keeping politics out of the incident. Of course, his campaign team will be hard-pressed not to invoke this victory when the time comes, as they will be able to say he has fulfilled one of his 2008 campaign promises.
The president was wise not to order a hit on the compound with a predator drone or bombs, because that would have eliminated the possibility of obtaining valuable information key to learning more about al-Qaeda members and its plans.
“The cause of securing our country is not complete,” Obama charged during his speech. “But tonight we are once again reminded that America can do whatever we set our mind to. That is the story of our history–whether it’s the pursuit of prosperity for our people, or the struggle for equality for all our citizens, our commitment to stand up for our values abroad and our sacrifices to make the world a safer place.”