Osama bin Laden was killed, not captured. If he had been taken into custody, what followed would have been the most complex and wrenching legal proceeding in American history. The difficulties would have been endless: military tribunal or criminal trial? Abroad—at Guantánamo?—or inside the United States? Would bin Laden have been granted access to the evidence against him? Who would represent him?
What if he represented himself, and tried to use the trial as a propaganda platform? All those questions faded into irrelevance with bin Laden’s death on Sunday.
Still, it’s worth noting that the apparently universal acclaim for the killing represents a major shift in American perceptions of such actions. Following the revelations of C.I.A. assassination plots by the Church Committee, in the nineteen-seventies, President Ford issued Executive Order 11905 (later 12333), which stated,
No employee of the United States Government shall engage in, or conspire to engage in, political assassination.
The term “assassination” was not defined, nor was it in subsequent orders signed by Presidents Carter and Reagan.
After the September 11th attacks, President Bush more or less acknowledged that the ban on assassination did not apply to bin Laden or other perpetrators of terrorism. Presidents Clinton and Bush issued secret findings that made apparently clear that such assassinations were not permissible. In March, Harold Koh, the legal adviser in the State Department, said in a speech,