It’s unclear if there was ever a serious effort to capture Osama Bin Laden and bring him to trial rather than kill him. The precision Navy Seal operation may have been intended, as an alternative to carpet-bombing bin Laden’s lair, to make sure the al Qaeda leader was dead while avoiding collateral noncombatant damage. Or it could have been an attempt to bring in the world’s most wanted terrorist.
In any case, much of the nation, including many elected officials, seems united behind the idea that "justice has been served." This is in contrast to simply noting that bin Laden’s reign of terror has ended and that innocent life has been protected by a military operation against a terror group. In fact, public statements I have seen so far are more likely to emphasize the punitive aspects of the raid than the practical implications. "We can take comfort knowing the mastermind of these evil acts has been brought to justice," said Rep. Nita Lowey of Westchester.
The killing will likely fuel the debate on both sides about the death penalty. One Connecticut lawmaker has already raised it in defense of his state’s capital punishment law as a debate over repeal looms. The Dallas Morning News has had to reconcile its welcome of the killing in light of its editorial policy against Texas capital punishment, citing DNA vindications and wrongful convictions.
The president’s statement that "the world is a better place because of the death of Osama bin Laden" is consistent with his stated support of the death penalty in his memoir, in which he said some cases are "so heinous, so beyond the pale, that the community is justified in expressing the full measure of its outrage by meting out the ultimate punishment." A broad consensus seems to be that, based only on bin Laden’s own confessions to the crime in his many video messages and U.S. intelligence information — linking him to the murder of nearly 3,000 Americans on 9/11, as well as the attacks on U.S. embassies and the USS Cole — there was no other fitting punishment for bin Laden than a bullet in the head.
It’s hard to imagine, then, any of the same people would argue that a killer who has the chance to plead his or her innocence but is convicted by a jury is any less worthy of the death penalty, particularly when it is more humane and has a post-conviction appeal process. Should only the number of victims justify capital punishment? Are individual lives less precious, more replaceable?
There is the argument that bin Laden’s execution does not bring back any of his victims, but since nothing can, that’s pointless. What it can do is give tens of thousands of Americans personally touched by the carnage of the attacks on the World Trade Center, the Pentagon, the embassies, Flight 93 and the Cole their first day of real peace of mind, or something close to it, in years.
Whether or not it’s a deterrent, that’s reason enough for "meting out the ultimate punishment."
There is also an interesting discussion about targeted killings of terrorists and how the widespread support for it in this case measures up against reaction when Israel does the exact same thing. Alan Dershowitz has an excellent analysis of that issue here.