When Mass Murder is Political

Submitted by: Mike Spindell, guest blogger

As people here no doubt know I am quite opinionated and rather definite in my views, perhaps to a fault some might say. In this piece though I must admit that I have mixed feelings as to what is right and what is wrong, in the issue I write about. The recent thread on this blog: Trophy Terrorist: Obama Suggests Romney Would Not Have Ordered the Killing of Osama Bin Laden: http://jonathanturley.org/2012/04/30/obama-suggests-romney-would-not-have-killed-osama/  engendered a lively debate on the propriety of summarily executing a purported mass murderer. In my mind as I viewed the back and forth of the thread, including my own comments, I began to think of the trial of Anders Behring Breivik in Norway for killing 77 people, the fact that he was using his trial for publicity to advance his racist cause in Norway and that at worst he was facing only twenty-one years, though it “might” be extended for life.

Had Osama Bin Laden been captured and stood trial it would have created a worldwide sensation. It would have had to have been televised, since the clamor for an “open” trial would have been deafening and I would have added my small voice to the clamor. The necessity of fairness to the defense would have followed the same dictum, since a publicly perceived unfairness would result in a U.S. public relations disaster, for obvious reasons. Therefore, this trial could have been used as a stage for stirring up the “terrorist” pot and perhaps as a great recruiting tool for Al Qaeda. My question is: faced with such potentially explosive results from a trial, is the government justified in simply killing to preclude a greater evil? To be honest I’m not completely certain where the equities of these situations lie as I’ll explain. 

Let us first look at a bit of history whose horror and ending we all know: In late 1923 Adolph Hitler initiated the “Beer Hall Putsch” an attempt at coup d’etat that resulted in the death of four police officers. He was arrested for treason a month later. His trial in February 1924 was a German press sensation and provided him a perfect forum for spreading his hateful views. Convicted, by his own admission, he was released in December 2004 by order of the Bavarian Supreme Court, over the prosecutor’s objections. The affair made Hitler into a national celebrity and gave legitimacy to his NDSAP (soon to be NAZI) party, which garnered 6% of the vote in the May 1924 elections. In prison Hitler completed the first volume of “Mein Kampf”, only adding to his mystique. Would history have been different if Hitler was truly punished for being the man behind for murders and treason? Did Hitler’s trial and subsequent release set him on the path of  destruction of millions, himself and the German people, serve the cause of justice?  To familiarize yourself with the facts: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Adolph_Hitler

In the Norwegian case of Mr. Breivik, we have a believer in racial purity and Fascism. He readily admits to the murder of seventy-seven people, mostly teens and believes he was justified in doing so. He purports to be a “writer”. The parallels with Hitler are so close as to convince me that Breivik is trying to emulate Da Feuhrer in word and deed.

“At the end of the indictment, he told the court: “I acknowledge the acts, but not criminal guilt – I claim I was doing it in self-defence.”

Breivik has already confessed to the attacks on 22 July. In the car bombing outside government buildings in Oslo, eight people were killed and 209 wounded.

 He killed 67 people and wounded 33 – most of them teenagers – in his shooting spree at the youth camp on Utoeya. A further two people died by falling or drowning.

At a court hearing in February, Breivik said his killing spree was “a preventative attack  against state traitors”, who were guilty of “ethnic cleansing” because they supported a multicultural society. His lawyer has said his only regret is that “he did not go further”.” http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-europe-17724535

The similarities of intent and action are strikingly familiar, however, Breivik far surpassed Hitler’s initial act. What effect will Breivik have on the future of Norway? Is any state in Europe, or indeed the entire world immune from racial/religious xenophobia? I think the sad truth of human history, in many more instances than I have space to cite, is that hatred for the other is a common rallying point for many human beings and a common tactic used by sociopaths on their road to power.

So now we come to the case of Osama Bin Laden, purportedly the person responsible for the mass murder of 9/11 and the head of the purportedly “most dangerous” terrorist organization in the world. I have to admit that there are questions as to whether Bin Laden was the 9/11 mastermind he was purported to be. There are suspicions that 9/11 was an inside job, that it was the work of Saudi intelligence, that Israel was behind it and/or that some other entity did it, but it was pinned on Bin Laden. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Responsibility_for_the_September_11_attacks and http://www.informationclearinghouse.info/article13664.htm

When I originally started to do this piece I was of a mind to believe that the evidence of Bin Laden’s guilt, or at least his self-servingly taking credit for it, was overwhelming. This belief held despite the fact that I can also believe from other readings that 9/11 was the result of the fulfillment of the PNAC’s plan of needing a large scale American tragedy, to implement their plan of re-making America an Empire in the mold of Rome. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Project_for_the_New_American_Century  My thoughts and feelings about 9/11 are both confused and skeptical, have been since it occurred and in its horrid aftermath. Nevertheless, I continued to view Bin Laden as a bad guy and still do now. Yet should he have been killed, as he was, or should he have brought to trial?

That confusion leads me back to where I began. We see in the case of Hitler that his trial ultimately became his triumph. Only the future will tell us if Breivik’s trial and the maximum sentence he faces, will elevate him to the fame and power he obviously craves, or a martyrdom that will also ultimately serve his cause. The question than devolves to what does a country do when political radicals attempt to use its own laws against it by turning a judicial system into a platform for publicity and recruitment? Also what does a country do when outside forces can pose it a security threat of broad magnitude?

One position on that question has seemed to be a tenet of American foreign policy for many years, stemming from World War II and the “Cold War”. History, however, shows that this strain of thinking goes much further back, perhaps to “The Shores of Tripoli”. That position is that America leadership should act unilaterally to stem any threat to the country, even if the threat is only to the business of a large corporation, such as United Fruit. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/United_Fruit_Company . From that thinking assassination and fomenting revolutions in foreign countries is acceptable and preferred. A Bin Laden trial would be fraught with danger in its aftermath and its preclusion would therefore be justifiable. We must remember that after 9/11 and it shocking affect on all of us, outright murder and/or torture of terrorists became an open topic of discussion, with our mass media leading the clamor and bestowing respectability on acts that used to require “plausible deniability”.

This way of thinking had led to a bi-partisan consensus during the “Cold War” and now remains as a belief of the majority of “serious” foreign policy/military experts, from all ends of the political spectrum. President Obama no doubt believes in this foreign policy/military dicta. That belief is no doubt reinforced by all the “experts” that surround him, with a possible few exceptions. To the “experts” the world of “24”, Jack Bauer and nuclear bombs exploding in Los Angeles are all too real. Truthfully though, when you see someone like Breivik, who can blame leaders for not wanting to take the risk of having so many killed on their watch? This thinking too, is arguably common wisdom accepted by a large majority of the American people, conditioned to its “truth” for many, many years. Whether we approve, or not, there are viable points to be made in favor of this strategic belief and one must exercise caution in demonizing those who honestly hold them.

My own belief is that the “pre-emptive” strike theory of dealing with situations like this diminishes legitimate government’s separation from those who would use terror to de-legitimize it. The aftermath of 9/11 has shown that whoever pulled it off succeeded in drawing America closer to becoming a “police state” and in many places (Arizona per chance?) we are emulating the decried USSR practice of limiting the mobility of its citizens. To allow our government to behave extra-legally will only diminish our own freedoms and blur the line between what is political protest and what is terrorism/revolution. I must stand inevitably then with the side of the issue that demands on lawful government action in the face of purported threat. While staking out this position I have to admit that I was an avid watcher of “24” and fan of Jack Bauer, in a fictional way given the internal logic of the series the “extra-legality” made sense. We don’t live in the internal “reality” of a TV show, no matter how surreal human life is and so I must stand by my beliefs ultimately, without the absolute certainty of their correctness.

I can never know though what it is like to be a President, with all those “experts” around you making each situation into a crisis that must be dealt with immediately, without time to really examine all possibilities. JFK faced that in “The Bay of Pigs” and the “Cuban Missile Crisis” and in both instances, to his everlasting credit, rejected the views of his “experts”. JFK also wound up murdered under circumstances that are even suspicious today. In President Obama’s case he was surrounded by “experts”, assuring him with their “intelligence information” that Bin Laden was responsible for 9/11 and they had located him. I’ve no doubt the orders given to Seal Team 6 were to capture him “if possible” but that maintaining their own safety was a priority. I the sense of “plausible deniability” one could question how the team leaders interpreted that order. Had Bi Laden been captured and put on trial, what forum would have been used? What are the “national security” considerations that such a trial would have raised? How would the “experts” interpret the threat engendered by the trial?

When we compare President Obama to JFK, we must understand that JFK was a man who had been through active combat and was well aware that many times military experts are wrong. He was the son of a father who had very skeptical views of government experts and he was truly his father’s son in that respect. Barack Obama had no military service and served on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, which is not only spoon fed self serving intelligence, but is also made to feel a part of deeply held secrets. I doubt he was, or is as skeptical of his “experts as was JFK. Then too, although a myth, Democrats are perceived as being chary of using America’s power and in a political sense are attacked for it constantly. Sadly, too often Democratic Presidents feel they have to go overboard to prove their “patriotism”, as defined by the jingoism of the Republican “Chicken-hawks”.

There are many sides to this issue and while I have my beliefs to which I’ll adhere, they are beliefs that I can’t state with the total authority of certainty. Where do you stand?

The following links were also used in putting this together and you might find them of interest:




Submitted by: Mike Spindell, guest blogger.

85 thoughts on “When Mass Murder is Political”

  1. MS, your points are accurate but still don’t explain why we didn’t simply kill Nazis as fast as we could. Assassinations was clearly an option the Western alliance discussed, and not doing so was very costly.

    I am not arguing that all American behavior at that time was saintly; our fire-bombing in Japan, our internment of Japanese Americans in camps to mention two examples.

    But it is incontrovertible that a significant segment of our politicians and our military felt strongly that treating the horror of the Nazi mass exterminations with justice was more representative of the will of the American people than summary assassination.

    That sentiment seems to be lacking today.

  2. BB, I am tired and about to go do something useful in my workshop. I will just refer you to Mike’s comment at 4:57PM. He says what I had been thinking.

    I am not shedding a single tear of regret for that monster. Or if you want to include the Nazis, them either.

  3. You just keep digging deeper and deeper, OS. Everyone is aware of the horror of 9/11. Most would agree that the horrors that occurred during WWII, where tens of millions of human beings were brutally killed in equally if not far more horrific ways were just as bad if not worse than the killing of 3000 Americans from the point of view of pure human evil.

    With honest respect for your ordeal, I am still convinced that our way of handling justice in WWII was far more enlightened and useful to society than what we are engaged in now, particularly with the bragging going on in the White House and the finger wagging going on on the other side.

  4. “The capture of dozens of Nazi war criminals was undertaken in equally if not more tense and explosive situations, with far more primitive equipment and far less well trained personnel than was the case with Osama bin Laden.”

    Your statement needs some historical clarification. Whiled the Nuremberg Trials tried to exemplify a just means of dealing with the war crimes committed by the NAZI’s, those on trial were predominantly the leaders whose services would have little value to the allies. Both the U.S. and the Russians vied for NAZI’s with scientific and intelligence backgrounds, since the war’s end was the beginning of the “Cold War”. The surrender of many such as Wehrner Von Braun was pretty much voluntary since he understood his value and he led a rather successful and wealthy life as the head of our missile/space program. Also involved was the Catholic Church, whose “ratline” saved many prominent NAZI’s including probably Mengele. There also was no real danger entailed in capturing NAZI’s, since the war had left them with little defensive resources. To me as a Jew, with the great perspective of hindsight, I think the “Trials” were show and blatantly hypocritical. As the Bush years show every government expects those under their control to follow orders, whether or not they are legal.

  5. BB, I am a wordsmith. I know exactly what I said–nothing was unwitting. Frankly, had I been with the team, I would have been willing to kill him myself with no regrets, had the need arisen.

    My wife and my sister were supposed to have been taking the rooftop tour of the WTC that Tuesday morning, but due to a last minute decision, did not go. We did not know if they were dead or alive until my wife was finally able to get a cell phone call through late that evening. Yes, I would have been perfectly willing to kill him myself. I would never send somebody to do something I would be unwilling to do.

  6. BB, Seal Team Six did not give a rat’s ass whether he came out dead or alive.

    I imagine you are dead right about that, OS. And they were just following orders. Without intention, It is nonetheless the most eloquent assessment of our enlightenment as a country, of our aspirations, our goals, and what we now consider “fair play” that I have heard in some time.

    Muy macho..

  7. BB, the Nazi war criminal roundup compared with the problems of taking out OBL is a false equivalence.


    I think you sum it up without realizing it when you say “the problems of taking out OBL[…]. Indeed, the problem wasn’t bringing OBL to justice. All along the problem was simply taking him out.

  8. BB, Seal Team Six did not give a rat’s ass whether he came out dead or alive. If he had come out with his hand’s up, he would have been taken alive. I am reminded of a situation here a few years ago. It was about 2:00 AM and an 70 y/o man armed with a shotgun was trying to get into a neighbor home where his abused wife had run for refuge. The sheriff and a deputy pulled up into the yard. It was very dark except for some moonlight. When the man whirled and started to point the shotgun at the sheriff, he was shot. Probably dead before he hit the porch. In a situation like that, whether domestic or on foreign soil, one does not stop to be polite or tell the person to hold out their hands so they can be cuffed.

  9. Also, you speak as if this was the only possible occasion. OBL had been “loose” for ten years. Another week, a month, whatever, would not have been a major PR problem to a country that was not anticipating the event at all anymore.

    Again, if the intent had been to capture, he would have been captured or we would have heard about it.

  10. Gene,
    I have to agree with OS here. More men does increase the risk of detection and loss of American lives, especially if it meant more helos. Even the secret so-called silent ones. If they found him in Afghanistan, I would agree with you. Then they would have had more options to deal with him and any possible threat OBL or his guards or wives would present.

  11. No OS, with due respect, it might have taken a little more planning, a few more resources, whatever; but it would have been done.

    Furthermore, if the intention ha been to bring him to trial, but he was killed due to difficulty of capture, it is highly likely that fact would have come out. Obama would have made it clear in a speech, it would have been leaked by a member of his administration. They would have been proud of it, without being ashamed of the kill or the necessity for it.

    They were not and they are not.

  12. Gene, one more thing–your observation regarding “a few more men.” They went in with two Blackhawk helicopters. An insertion helicopter has limited lifting capacity, and to insert more troops would mean a third helicopter. This was a commando raid. More aircraft means more noise, more people to get in each others way and increased risk of compromising the operation. As it was, they lost one of the Blackhawks and had to bring in a rescue helicopter. The operation was teetering on the ragged edge of fail as it was.

  13. Gene, from a military tactical viewpoint, the choice between “Wanted, dead or alive” was not a hard choice. The team had to weigh choices between risk versus reward. The reward is to absolutely positively take OBL out, versus getting somebody hurt, killed or arrested by the Pakistanis. The whole operation had to be carried out undetected and get out of the country before the Pakistan Air Force could scramble fighters. Don’t forget, they are in a fast moving firefight inside a safe house. To say that options were limited is an understatement.

  14. BB, the Nazi war criminal roundup compared with the problems of taking out OBL is a false equivalence. On top of that, many of the Nazis escaped, including the infamous Dr. Mengele. I would be most interested in how you would have gone about arresting Osama bin Laden if President Obama dumped the problem in your lap. And remember, part of your task is to do it without getting any Americans killed or injured, or arrested by a very pissed off Pakistani government.

    Don’t forget, OBL was a cash cow for Pakistan as well as Afghanistan. As long as he was alive, the American government was paying them lots and lots of money to “look” for him.

  15. OS,

    I’m going to have to disagree tactically. It would have been difficult to take OBL alive, but not even close to impossible. It may have taken a few more men to exercise the full range of options, but I think it was doable. Consider multiple soldiers with varied and quick-switching lethal/not-so-lethal options and his death does not seem inevitable. These guys are trained to make virtually instantaneous combat decisions. Kill versus subdue is just another such choice.

  16. The capture of dozens of Nazi war criminals was undertaken in equally if not more tense and explosive situations, with far more primitive equipment and far less well trained personnel than was the case with Osama bin Laden. The Western alliance was keenly aware of the public relations dangers of bringing Nazis to justice rather than simply killing them. Yet they did it anyway, again and again and again.

    To claim that arresting Osama bin Laden is ludicrous without knowing the circumstances other than the pure conjecture of cops and robbers and further to imply that simply because it was difficult exonerates the act, would perhaps be a more accurate usage of the term, “ludicrous”.

    The White House has admitted that bin Laden was unarmed and that when he was captured there was no “fire fight” under way. Granted, the circumstances will remain obscure unless and until the White House feels that leaking them is advantageous, but given today’s technology which includes the extraordinary training of the seals, and given the capture of so many other high level criminals when there is the desire to do so, bin Laden’s potential capture is not any more impossible than possible and is certainly not ludicrous.

  17. raff, thanks. The very idea of trying to arrest bin Laden is ludicrous at best. If you ever watch the reality series “Cops” and see three large officers trying to get handcuffs on a 5’3″ 120 pound spitting mad drunk woman, imagine what it would be like to try it with a guy 6’6″ and not an ounce of fat on him.

    One of the things the Seal Team Six had to be prepared for was the fact they had to take into consideration bin Laden might wear a suicide vest all the time, just in case a raid did go down unexpectedly. They had to take him out before he had the time to set it off or pull the pin on a grenade.

  18. You know that the the terrorists responsible for the first attack on the World Trade Center were captured, not killed; were held in a Federal prison, not Guantanamo; were not tortured; were tried in a Federal, not military court; were convicted without any fanfare; and are now in a Federal, not military prison?

    That was the way that Clinton handled it. Why would there be a legitimate question whether such a thing can be done? Because we are obligated to still operate under the Bush doctrine? Have we lost our collective minds?

  19. bettykath, your understanding of the logistics of the Afghanistan military buildup is flawed at best. FWIW, the first American killed in Afghanistan was one of my neighbors. I did not know him personally, but we have many friends and acquaintances in common. I have a pretty good feel for how things were going down back then. The buildup did not just happen one Thursday. It took time.

  20. I think OS got it right. Bin Laden was a wanted criminal and the Seals did the right thing. Now, I would not put the kill orders of American citizens into the same boat as Bin Laden. The government has a duty and is legally bound to handle citizens under the law. The question for me is whether a President can legally order a citizen to be killed without attempting to arrest and/or have a trial? Obama went to far on ordering citizens deaths without due process. Bin Laden did not enjoy that same right.
    Great article Mike.

Comments are closed.