It’s only been a few days since Osama bin Laden was killed in a U.S. military assault on his compound in Pakistan. And in those few days, the internet has been buzzing with discussions, debates and hand-wringing over whether the U.S. acted lawfully. We’ve been reading thoughts of people on every continent, regular folks with access to a computer, who may or may not even know what they’re talking about. And all we have to say is this:
We’re glad to be living in a world where such hand-wringing is possible. More than that — a world where it’s actually meaningful (rather than silly) to wonder whether a precise military action by the world’s single greatest military power, against its universally-acknowledged military enemy, comported with some higher and overriding law. A world where such hand-wringing is done at great length by that same great power, prior to engaging in the military action to begin with.
Imagine that, just for a moment. Has this ever before been the norm, in the entire history of mankind? Because it sure is now.
How did we get here? How did the world evolve to a point where the Rule of Law is the rule, not the exception? Where everyone pretty much expects that even the greatest military power is not above the law?
It’s been a long time coming. International law has been developing for centuries. But credit has to go to the U.S. and to the U.N., both for living by the Rule of Law (most of the time) and spreading the ideal and the idea. It matters that the world’s superpower acknowledges the law, and cares deeply whether its actions are lawful, no matter which party happens to hold the presidency at the moment. It also matters that the world has an engine for forming and enforcing (somewhat) rules that are binding not only on those who would be bound, but also on the strongmen and thugs who would not.
Of course, we’re not all the way there yet. There still are plenty of places where the Rule of Law doesn’t exist. They suffer for it — not just atrocities and depredation, but failed economies, corrupt governments, and dearth of opportunity. If there is one thing above all that separates the first world from the third world, it is the Rule of Law. Especially in this globalized world, the places that succeed are those where contracts can be counted on, everyone has to play by the same rules, and the rules are actually enforced. Once you’ve got that, you can kind of predict what’s going to happen with enough certainty to invest one’s time, labor or capital to actually do something.
And it’s easy to spot the countries without the Rule of Law. For example:
Still, the world is on the right path. Let’s hope that there really is some sort of “arrow of history” like the one Francis Fukuyama proposed back in ’92 (though he did subsequently back away from the idea). We’re hardly Utopian in outlook — our own mother calls us “old doom and gloom” — but it’s not unrealistic to hope for at least a trend towards more and more Rule of Law in the world, with the result of more and more general safety, security and opportunity.
But we’re getting off topic.
The point is, we’re glad to be living in a world that can be full of hand-wringers over whether the U.S. acted lawfully in taking out an apparently unarmed Osama bin Laden, without instead capturing him and putting him through a criminal process of some sort with due process, etc.
(And for those who really want to know whether it was lawful or not, the short answer is yes. The medium answer is he was a lawful target of a lawfully authorized kill mission during a war in which both he and the U.S. soldiers were combatants. From all that we’ve read, it was done by the book.)