(1) Was the killing of Osama bin Laden an execution, or would the military team have taken OBL alive if he hadn’t resisted or had been rendered harmless? Government officials have made contradictory statements on this point, and it’s unlikely we’ll ever know the truth with certainty. (Update: A senior administration official is now saying that OBL did not have a weapon when he was shot). Note that from a legal perspective, if the team had orders to kill OBL in any event, it wouldn’t make any legal difference if OBL shot back, any more than it would for police officers in a similar situation. The laws of war don’t allow you to kill combatants under any and all circumstances. Of course the situation could be ambiguous in a number of ways — for instance it’s quite possible that the commanders of the military operation weren’t given explicit orders to kill their target, but that it was made clear to them what a successful operation would entail. Certainly there’s little to no evidence that attempting to capture OBL alive was a priority.
(2) Leaving aside whatever the actual orders were, would capturing OBL have been a more desirable outcome, without regard to questions regarding the legal status of the operation? On this question I agree with Glenn Greenwald’s take.
(3) Progressives should take note that enthusiastic celebrations of the violence of the state, whether it manifests itself in strictly legal or extra-legal ways, tend to reinforce certain attitudes about authority and authoritarianism. See, for example, this passage from a Commentary essay on the execution-style killing of a couple of famous American outlaws, which ponders why there isn’t a movie about the Texas Ranger who ambushed them:
That movie, however, certainly could not have been made in 1967 and it certainly can’t be made in 2009: Hamer is too straight, too commanding, too uncompromising for such a treatment. The irony is that Hamer is forgotten while Clyde and Bonnie live on. Hamer stood for something: the idea of right and the guts to make it stick. Clyde and Bonnie stood for nothing, except perhaps infantile nihilism, unformed, incoherent, vicious. If they were ambushed without warning, it’s because each had weapons at hand, and so they wouldn’t widow and orphan other police families. If they were shot to pieces, it’s because the old-time law enforcement guys knew you shot them, and then you shot them some more.
Hamer stands for your grandfather’s authority, annoyance at fools, and the willingness to kill in the belief that he was saving the weak by eliminating their predator. He was a righteous killer, a dinosaur whose time has passed. He’s what Barack Obama swears he’ll change about America.