Backtracking on Bin Laden

2011-05-07 13:37

The White House has had to correct its facts over the killing of Osama bin Laden and, for some, that has diminished the glow of success that has surrounded all those involved in the operation.

Bin Laden wasn’t armed when he was shot. It raises suspicions that this was indeed a deliberate shoot-to-kill operation.

Here are the inaccuracies in the first version. The woman killed was not his wife. No woman was used as a human shield. And he was not armed.

The president’s press secretary, Jay Carney, suggested that this was the result of trying to provide a great deal of information in a great deal of haste.

I can largely accept that.

There is no mileage in misleading people and then correcting yourself. But the president’s assistant national security adviser, John Brennan, had used the facts he was giving out to add a moral message – this was the sort of man Bin Laden was, cowering behind his wife, using her as a shield.

Nice narrative. Not true.

In fact, according to Carney, this unarmed woman tried to attack the armed Navy Seal.

In another circumstance, that might even be described as brave.

Jay Carney said that Bin Laden didn’t have to have a gun to show resistance.

He said there was a great deal of resistance in general and a highly volatile firefight.

The latest version says Bin Laden’s wife charged at the US commando and was shot in the leg, but not killed.

The two brothers, the couriers and owners of the compound, and a woman were killed on the ground floor of the main building. This version doesn’t mention Bin Laden’s son, who also died.

By this count only three men, at the most, were armed. I wonder how much of a fight they could put up against two helicopters’ worth of Navy Seals.

Does any of this matter? Well, getting the facts right is always important.

You can’t make a judgment without them. We all make mistakes, and journalists hate doing so because it makes people trust us less.

For those involved in an operation like this, time must go past in a confused and noisy instant – and they aren’t taking notes. Confusion is very understandable.

But you start to wonder how many facts are being massaged to gloss over the less appealing parts of the operation.

And of course there is the suspicion that the US never wanted to take Bin Laden alive.

Here at least many see a trial as inconvenient, awkward – a chance for terrorists to grandstand. Look at all the fuss surrounding the trial of Khalid Sheikh Mohammed.

In the confusion of a raid, it’s hard to see how the Seals could be sure Bin Laden wasn’t armed, didn’t have his finger on the trigger of a bomb, wasn’t about to pull a nasty surprise.

If he had his hands in the air shouting “don’t shoot”, he might have lived, but anything short of that ensured his death.

I suspect there will be more worry about this in Britain and Europe than in the US. It is a cultural difference.

Britons are less comfortable with frontier justice, less forgiving about police shooting people who turn out to be unarmed, perhaps less inculcated with the Dirty Harry message that real justice comes from the barrel of a gun.

But many in the US won’t be bothered in the slightest that a mass murderer got what was coming to him, whether he was trying to kill anyone in that instant or not.

– BBC News

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