De Facto Wars

2011-05-05 00:12:03 by chort

Recently I became involved in a debate with Jacob Appelbaum regarding the legality of US forces killing Osama bin Laden. Jacob contends that bringing bin Laden to justice is essentially a law enforcement matter and as such he is afforded a trial (making his recent death illegal). I disagree. Due to the limitations of Twitter we were not able to have real debate. I'm going to present my side here.

To me, the entire debate hinges on the definition of war. If one accepts that the United States is not, in fact, at war with al-Qaeda, then Jacob's position is consistent and seeking out al-Qaeda members to intentionally kill them (rather than attempt to apprehend them for a trial) would be criminal. If on the other hand, we treat the situation as a de facto state of war, than al-Qaeda members are enemy combatants and can be freely killed by the forces with which they are at war without any prior warning or attempt at non-lethal resolution.

In earlier conversations, Jacob had attempted to draw parallels between early 1990s domestic right-wing militias in the United States and al-Qaeda. His point being that dealing with such militias was a law enforcement issue (rightly so). There are however, many differences between the mentioned right-wing militias and al-Qaeda. For one, with the exception of Timothy McVeigh, none of them conducted violent attacks that killed or injured dozens, let alone hundreds of people. Other than that, all the violent confrontations that I can recall were triggered when heavily armed federal agents stormed the compounds of the militias in pre-emptive strikes, absent any credible threats those groups had made to harm civilians.

On the other hand, al-Qaeda had conducted attacks against US civilians and military personnel for nearly 20 years, starting with a 1992 hotel bombing in Africa. They continued to attack the US purposefully with massive and coordinated embassy bombings, a direct attack on the U.S.S. Cole, and the killing of nearly 3,000 civilians on 9/11/2001. There was no declaration of war, but there were many public statements of intent to attack the United States and it's interests. In addition to attacking the United States, bin Laden financed and incited attacks in Algeria and Egypt (including the deliberate targeting of civilians). This is only a brief summary of successful attacks--I've left out several other (possibly uncounted more) foiled plots to cause massive civilian casualties.

So what, haven't terrorist organizations targeted civilians before? Haven't hundreds of people been killed before? What's the difference? The difference is this: Scale. Prior terrorist groups were small enough that they could be handled by law enforcement agencies. With the exception of a few large hostage-taking events, police were equipped and capable of dealing with prior terrorist groups. The groups were of limited size, generally with numbers of members capable of violence under a hundred. They also were not equipped with heavy weapons and didn't have extensive formal training.

Al-Qaeda breaks all those constraints. They are (were) extremely well-funded (requiring an estimate $30M USD/year to operate). They have heavy weapons, capable of taking on armored vehicles and aircraft. At it's height of power it had an estimate several thousand members, and there are numerous off-shoots and affiliated groups. They had at least dozens of training facilities in Africa and Afghanistan (some estimates as high as a hundred). As is well-known, bin Laden got his start fighting a ruthless Russian military in Afghanistan. He knew what was required to fight a nation-state and built al-Qaeda as an army. Does this sound like an organization that can be effectively engaged by police?

If al-Qaeda is conducting military operations against soldiers and civilians of a nation state, no formal declaration of war (on the victim's part) is necessary to justify a military response (a declaration requires a nation-state, which al-Qaeda is not). Congressional approval was necessary, and was granted. Al-Qaeda have elected to conduct warfare over nearly two decades. They haven't called any kind of truce. They continue to attempt plots to kill massive amounts of civilians. They know full-well that several national militaries are seeking to destroy them, and they continue to fight. These are not signs of a criminal organization that should be dealt with through courts. These are signs of a military engaged in combat.

It then naturally follows that Osama bin Laden, as a member and commander of a military unit, engaged in combat operations, is a legitimate military target and requires no judicial permission to kill. He started a war and suffered the consequences.

I'm not relishing in his death. I'm not running into the street chanting nonsense or waving boisterous signs. I think it's yet another regrettable example of religious extremism gone violently wrong. People of nearly every faith throughout history have used their beliefs as justification for unprovoked attacks on innocents.

At the same time, it is a mistake to treat naked aggression as a law enforcement matter. When people make serious decisions, they should be treated seriously. If tomorrow a group of nutheads pops out of the woods in Montana and shells a town with mortars because they don't like the federal government, and it turns out they have hundreds of armed members ambushing motorists and blowing up hotels, I think it would be totally appropriate to mobilize the US military against them. We could not expect police to arrest people who have mortars, RPGs, anti-aircraft missiles, and enough combatants to use them effectively. Trying to deal with that kind of threat with arrests and trials is simply not effective and would only serve to cause further loss of life.

In summary: Do not rush to war, but if you find yourself in a war do not pretend it's something else. You'll only cause more suffering.

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