3 May 2011

Bin Laden assassination and the law of the wild west

The news that Osama Bin Laden has met a deserved untimely end at the hands of US special forces leaves me with bizarrely mixed feelings.

The spontaneous celebrations outside the Whitehouse at 3am local time appeared to me unseemly and vulgar. And the idea that the US and the west face some sort of closure as a result bizarre.

However, the world is (or will be) a better place without Bin Laden.

But as others have blogged elsewhere the assassination is likely to lead to an upturn in Al Quaeda inspired terrorism as a result.

I can't help thinking that it would have been far better if Bin Laden had been arrested and brought to trial to answer for his crimes. It would have sent a clear message that the modern west is better than the lynch mob justice of the old wild west (or the modern middle east).

However modern American isn't quite as easy to define. It has the death penalty (at least in certain states - including Obama's Illinois, but not Palin's Alaska), the state (or certain states in fact) murder around 35 people a year with three times as many on death row. The US has a huge level of personal firearm ownership and a constitutional right to form militias and culture that enjoys both gun ownership and vigilantism. So it is easy to see why a hit squad taking out Bin Laden with no questions asked will get widespread and unquestioning support, simply because it is part of the American zeitgeist.

But it feels to me after eight years of George W and ten years of Tony Blair the west has simply sunk to some old testament 'eye for an eye' level of international relations - where every international problem can be fixed by armed might. And John Wayne (or some poorer modern version) in a white hat can ride out and take out all the criminal masterminds in the black hats with ease.

The old democracies of Europe ruined themselves (at least twice) with this attitude and clever leaders should be using more discrete means to achieve their ends.

After all the UK Conservative party pledged (very interestingly) to use more soft power in international relations at last year's general election. Something that helped the party to coalesce with the UK Liberal party. It's clearly now time for this aspect of the UK coalition government foreign policy to come to the fore.

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