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Posted at 08:12 AM ET, 05/02/2011

Osama bin Laden killed [updated again]

In his final moments, Osama bin Laden had a choice — something his victims weren’t given. On the airliners, in the towers, at the Pentagon, innocent people suddenly had no way out. But bin Laden had an option. He could have surrendered. He refused, and the Navy Seals did what they were trained to do. The first head shot surely ended it, but they gave him a “double tap” — a term I hadn’t heard until this morning — to make sure. [Update: This Reuters story says the Seals were ordered to kill, not capture.]

This was an extraordinary job by the military and U.S. intelligence.

“Justice has been done”: That’s precisely the right tone. No need for cowboy talk or triumphalism. Americans shouldn’t gloat: The message needs to be that this was justice, not vengeance. Bin Laden was a criminal. He brought on this cockamamie war, an imaginary clash of civilizations. He perverted Islamic theology into a justification for the slaughter of innocent people. In his mind, an office building in New York City could be a military target. The people trapped above the impact zone of the airliners on the WTC towers, who had no escape from the flames other than jumping, probably never knew why it happened, who might be behind it.

Remember how stunned and baffled we all were on that crystal-clear September morning. Remember the Pentagon belching black smoke that drifted across the Potomac as hundreds of thousands of people fled the capital, many on foot, everyone shocked and confused and horrified.

As the president said last night: America was not, and is not, at war with Islam. This was a fantasy war brought on by radical theology. Now there’s one less radical theologian who thinks that killing the innocent somehow advances his cause.

It’s ominous that bin Laden was living so openly in a walled compound down the street from Pakistan’s version of West Point. Of course the U.S. didn’t tip the Pakistani government about the impending operation. Obama in his statement last night had kind words for the Pakistanis who helped develop the intelligence leads that led to the discovery of bin Laden’s hiding place. This was a triumph for both countries, he said. But someone has to answer the question about how the world’s top terrorist hid in plain sight.

Note that the administration chose the riskier option of trying to capture bin Laden rather than simply taking him out with bombs. They knew he was there and could have obliterated the compound. But it was important to confirm that we had him. This was not just about killing a terrorist; this was about punctuating the narrative of bin Laden and his jihad. This was about closing the book.

This is not the end of the story, but it’s a necessary turning point. The U.S. said we’d get this guy. We were true to our word.

--

Update:

More and more its sounds like Osama bin Laden was roughly as inconspicuous in Abbottabad as Siegfried and Roy are in Las Vegas.

Like the tiger-tamers, bin Laden had a fancy compound surrounded by houses a fraction of the size. U.S. officials became suspicious in part because this million-dollar mansion had no Internet or phone connection.

Also there were those 18-foot-tall security walls, and the 7-foot privacy wall along the third-floor terrace. The satellite dishes.

That whole “terrorist hideout” aesthetic.

This was down the street from the Pakistani military academy. So maybe the theory was: No one will find us if we look and act like the Osama bin Laden Brigade right in plain sight in this nice suburb of Islamabad.

Another theory: He had friends in high places. Who are not our friends.

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Some questions:

What happened to the bodies of the other people killed? What about the other people injured? Did we capture people alive?

Notwithstanding what I wrote in my opening paragraph: Did Osama really have the option of surrendering? Or was that the worst case scenarior for U.S. leaders (Gitmo, trial, etc.)?

What went wrong, exactly, with the helicopter that had mechanical failure (link is to interesting Marc Ambinder piece on how the operation was conducted and the hush-hush military unit behind it).

How do you sneak up on people with helicopters? Or did we have boots on the ground before the choppers roared in?

More on the chopper from Mike Allen at Politico:

“The helicopter carrying the assault force appeared to stall as it hovered over the compound, producing heart-stopping moments for the officials back in Washington. Aides thought fearfully of “Black Hawk Down” and “Desert One,” the failed Iranian hostage rescue mission. The pilot put the bird down gently in the compound, but couldn’t get it going again. The assault force disembarked. “They went ahead and raided the compound, even though they didn’t know if they would have a ride home,” an official said. The special forces put some bombs on the helicopter and blew it up. Bin Laden resisted the assault force, and was shot in the face during a firefight. With the team still in the compound, the commander on the ground told another commander that they had found Osama bin Laden. Applause erupted in Washington. Reinforcements came and picked up the SEALs, who had scavenged every shred and pixel of possible intelligence material from the house. U.S. forces took photographs of the body, and officials used facial-recognition technology to compare them with known pictures of bin Laden. It was him.” [From Mike’s Playbook email.]

Here’s Steve Coll in The New Yorker:

“It stretches credulity to think that a mansion of that scale could have been built and occupied by bin Laden for six years without its coming to the attention of anyone in the Pakistani Army.”

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After lunch today I kept thinking about today’s big storry, and a phrase wouldn’t quite leave my brain: “The war is over.”

But surely that’s not a purely rational thought. This is no time to throw a parade, right? Listen to what the leaders tell us today: We must remain vigilant. The terrorists are still out there, there could be retaliation any moment. The war goes on. Terror is forever.

Except we are due for a war-is-over moment, irrational though it may be. And not sanctioned by superiors. And geopolitically incorrect and whatnot.

Gene Robinson has perfectly captured why this moment is special, above and beyond the obvious fact that Public Enemy Number One is dead. Read his piece.

“Osama bin Laden was more than a piece of unfinished business. He was a constant, if rarely acknowledged, presence in our lives. He was there when we took off our shoes at the airport, there when we drove past the Pentagon, there when we saw a picture of the New York skyline....

“The changes in our lives will endure, but the man responsible for those changes is gone at last.”

By  |  08:12 AM ET, 05/02/2011

 
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