Would summarily executing Osama bin Laden render the very standards of justice that we are defending from his terror empty and meaningless? When I encounter a difficult question, I consult the wisdom of Winston Churchill.
“If Hitler falls into our hands,” Churchill wrote in the midst of World War II, “we shall certainly put him to death.” He did not mean by this that Hitler ought to have been sentenced to death after being found guilty by a jury of his peers. Churchill wanted Hitler killed on the spot. Why?
Look no further than the trial of Saddam Hussein. Anyone who thinks trials necessarily produce just outcomes should read the transcripts of the proceedings from the Baghdad courthouse. Shouting matches are a regular occurrence; Hussein frequently calls on his people to resist the Zionist occupiers and challenges the legitimacy of the court; the previous trial judge, who stepped down midway through the ordeal, has been threatened with his life.
The last time Hussein ranted, the judge hit the “off” switch on his microphone and ordered the cameras shut off, and now the trial has been adjourned. It’s a classic Catch-22: either the judge lets Hussein accuse the court of being illegitimate or he silences him and opens the court to accusations of illegitimacy.
A protracted trial in which bin Laden could use the courtroom floor as a stage to speak to his faithful followers would be even worse. At least Hussein is being tried in Iraq. Bin Laden would probably be tried in America. That means the American justice system would be on trial as much as bin Laden, which would focus attention away from where it ought to be focused, on the charges against the accused.
Then there is the matter of proving guilt beyond a reasonable doubt. Hussein is on trial for killing 148 people one day in 1982. That hardly does justice to his hundreds of thousands of victims. Yet a trial of bin Laden would also not illuminate the truth. Bin Laden has confessed to his crimes and he has already been convicted in the court of public opinion at home. Additionally, convicting him in the eyes of those under his sway is practically impossible because of the legitimacy dilemma I have described above.
I think Churchill thought that, when it comes to notorious criminals of the worst sort, any legal process can only obscure justice. There is nothing inherently just about execution either, but at least by executing bin Laden, we can avoid the kinds of perils bound up with a trial.