YouTube video

Phyllis Bennis: Message sent to Arab world was unilateral power, not justice

Story Transcript

PAUL JAY, SENIOR EDITOR, TRNN: Welcome to The Real News Network. I’m Paul Jay in Washington. When Osama bin Laden was murdered, Phyllis Bennis was in Jordan. She heard the news, and she also heard the calls to prayer. Now joining us in the studio to talk about her response, reaction to the murder of bin Laden and what she observed in Jordan and later in Egypt is Phyllis Bennis. Phyllis works at the Institute for Policy Studies. She’s the author of the book Before and After: US Foreign Policy and the September 11th Crisis. Thanks for joining us.


JAY: So describe the moment when you heard. And then, how did the Jordanians react, as you saw?

BENNIS: It was a rather extraordinary moment. I was up very early. It was about 6:15, 6:30 in the morning in my hotel, and I turned on BBC and opened the window sort of at the same time, and I heard the call to prayer. There was a muezzin at the local mosque just outside the hotel who had a particularly striking voice. I had heard it the day before and liked it and wanted to hear it again. And then I turned to the BBC and was hearing the end of President Obama’s speech explaining that there had just been this killing of Osama bin Laden just a few hours before. And I thought, oh, God, now we’re in for some serious changes in US policy, except maybe probably not. It was a moment of oh my God, this is going to change everything, and then a recognition that it should, but it probably won’t. And what was interesting–. I talked later to a number of Jordanians about it. Jordan is rather quiet right now. Amman tends to be a fairly passive city. It’s not a traditionally mobilized, engaged populace. There’s not a lot of political action. There’s a number of incredible activists working to change that, but it doesn’t happen by itself very easily. And uniformly what people told me was they didn’t mourn that bin Laden had been killed, they weren’t sorry he was dead, but they were very uneasy at best about how it had happened. For some it was a matter of almost national pride that had been humiliated. They identified with the people of Pakistan. Some of it was religious. They said, as Muslims, what are we that the US can just march into some country and kill somebody and leave, taking into account nothing, not talking to the government, no permission, no nothing? What does this say about the relationship of our countries? And that seemed to be the most common response [crosstalk]

JAY: Now, when the news first broke, the reports were there had been a firefight, and after a half hour of a firefight, bin Laden, who had tried to resist, although he apparently wasn’t armed–. And then it turns out there was no firefight at all. They went in and they executed this guy, assuming that is what happened. I mean, my own–I just find it ridiculous that if you actually could capture such a guy, why wouldn’t you capture and interrogate the guy, never mind put him on trial?

BENNIS: You know, there was something in President Obama’s speech that I had picked up on immediately and used it in the piece that I wrote just in those first few hours that was published just a few hours later, where he said there was a firefight after he was killed. It was–he was very clear at that point, even though it didn’t match the narrative they were first trying to spin that there was this firefight and it was chaos and whatever. His speech was actually–at least it matches the later versions, and it matches what seems to have happened. They went in, there was a firefight downstairs (very brief), they went upstairs, and they killed him. They clearly had the capacity to use lethal force in a nonlethal manner. They shot somebody else in the legs. These are the best-trained sharpshooters the US has available. And the notion that the only option was to immediately kill him and that their real orders were, unless he stands up, raises his hands, and says, presumably in English, “I surrender”–. I mean, one wonders, if he had said that in Arabic or in Urdu–.

JAY: And he had to be–apparently, had to be naked, too.

BENNIS: Right. Would they still have allowed him to surrender? It seems probably not. This was a mission, from all that we know–and we don’t know everything, but from all that we do know, this was a mission to kill him, not to capture him, not to put him on trial. Certainly, putting him on trial would be a tremendous challenge, but this is a nation that claims to take challenges as part of who we are, as President Obama likes to put it. Imagine what we could have learned. Imagine if there had not been torture, if there had been serious interrogation based on the purposes of interrogation, which is to get information, and then put him on trial in front of all the world to show what it means to bring someone to justice. Instant death is not justice.

JAY: Well, the other thing, too, is they may not have liked what would have come out of the trial.

BENNIS: There’s certainly that. There’s all kinds of reasons.

JAY: [crosstalk] saying in some of the interviews that I’ve been doing, there are so many unanswered questions about 9/11, about the role of the Saudi royal family, the Pakistan and Saudi intelligence, and so on. And bin Laden has been connected to these intelligence agencies one way or the other for years.

BENNIS: Absolutely.

JAY: So perhaps they didn’t want the light of day.

BENNIS: For whatever reason, they certainly didn’t want the light of day. We don’t necessarily know all the reasons. But it was clear that this was an option they chose not to take.

JAY: So in terms of what this means for the Obama administration, in terms of the precedents it sets in American and international law, I mean, you start with the fact that there was no investigation of Bush-Cheney and their role in the Iraq War. And then, number two, not only does Bush get invited to go to Haiti and get rehabilitated rather quickly with Clinton, now he’s invited to go to the ground zero site in New York. He turned them down. But the whole issue of America above the law seems to be the established precedent now. This is another piece of that.

BENNIS: This is a very dangerous precedent. What we have seen is the reality that there is no accountability in the United States. And this was one more example of it. We saw not only the action–going into Pakistan without any connection, without any cooperation, without any collaboration with the Pakistani government, as far as we know–.

JAY: As far as we know. Who knows–. It’s really hard to know what the truth of all that is.

BENNIS: That’s certainly true. But what we’re being told is–and this speaks to the question of pride–we’re proud we went in without the Pakistani government having anything to say about it. That says something about the sense of impunity that resides, that continues to reside in, now, the Obama administration. We know that just a few days after the killing of Osama bin Laden, we saw the first military strike, the first air strike in Yemen, carried out by a US drone, the first one in over a year, aimed at a US citizen, the Imam al-Awlaki, who’s a US citizen on the, quote, kill or capture list, which apparently seems to mean kill more than capture. They missed. It’s not clear how many other people may have died. But this notion that there is a legal right by the US, because it has the power to do so, to use its military force to carry out targeted assassinations, something that the State Department has condemned Israel for–. In a rare moment when the US publicly criticized Israel, it was for targeted assassinations. This is something that was prohibited in the United States since the era of Gerald Ford, since the Church commission of 1976. It was outlawed for the United States to engage in targeted assassinations. Now, all of a sudden, it’s back on the table, and we’re doing it with a vengeance–vengeance being the operative word.

JAY: And the other part of this is that if someone has committed a crime which is supposed to be so heinous, then you don’t have to have any due process. But I saw recently someone compared this to the Nuremberg trials. I mean, nothing Osama bin Laden did compares to what the Nazis did, and there wasn’t, apparently, some support for kind of immediate executions.

BENNIS: And it was the US Supreme Court justice Justice Jackson, Justice Robert Jackson, who was one of the prosecutors at Nuremberg. He was the one who said, this is not going to be victor’s justice. This is not going to be instant justice. We are not going to just hang these people. We are going to put them on trial for the world to see. It was an incredible model of what justice, international justice, could and should look like. This was one of the things in my book that you mentioned before and after. It was one of the great things I got to do was write the speech that George Bush should have given on the night of 9/11, when he finished reading My Pet Goat [sic] to the children. He should have given a real speech that talked about what do you do to respond to this kind of a crime against humanity, this kind of a massive crime, a war crime. What do you do? This is why we need an international criminal court. This is why we should not only be supporting the court, but strengthening it, so it has the capacity to go after criminals and bring them to justice. This is why we need international cooperation. This is why we need to sign on to the treaties. And instead, this was a reclaiming of unilateralism, something that the Obama administration claims it is rejecting. And yet we see it in operation at an almost higher level than we saw in the last few years of the Bush administration.

JAY: The other thing I’ve been not surprised at but a little taken aback by the kind of official liberal media–by that I mean MSNBC and some of the others in that kind of sphere–that most of the coverage has just been engaging about how the Republicans are trying to take credit for this by saying somehow waterboarding–and all of a sudden, waterboarding became the issue, not the assassination of this guy. And I know this is–it’s not old news, because of this issue of rehabilitating Bush. And I’ll say it again, because some people wrote in and thought it was sort of alarming that I said this: the Bush-Cheney administration killed a lot more people than bin Laden did, and they did it based on a war that was illegal and lies and so on. But the Obama administration, by rehabilitating Bush and how they carried this out, it seems to just be adding to the kind of layers of this that Bush created.

BENNIS: I don’t think there’s ever much value–and I’m sorry for this, Paul–in weighing suffering, weighing how many people were killed. The crimes of 9/11 were a huge crime. The crime that began on 9/12 by the Bush administration was a huge crime. There needs to be accountability. I’m not interested so much in the numbers. There have been too many on all sides.

JAY: No, it’s not about the numbers. It’s that one side is considered not an–like, [incompr.] even go to Jon Stewart. Jon Stewart was in an interview. And, I’m sorry, I can’t remember who it was, but someone referred to–. It was before Stewart had his rally. And people were giving Stewart hell for saying that people that were antiwar were the equivalent of what he was describing as kind of nutties on the far right. And people were saying to Stewart, you know, George Bush is a war criminal; you’re not a nut if you say George Bush at the very least should have been investigated for war crimes. And Stewart said, oh, you can’t call Bush a war criminal. It’s not I’m trying to compare numbers here, that one’s greater than the other. One’s completely off the hook.

BENNIS: The problem is accountability. We have no history of accountability in this country when it comes to our own governments. This–again, it comes back to something that Justice Jackson said at the time of the Nuremberg process. He said: we have to be prepared to acknowledge that in a similar situation our leaders would be put up on trial as well. Now, we don’t have–thank God we don’t have another Holocaust, another murder of 6 million Jews and however many Gypsies and the Roma, the gay people, communists who were murdered by the Nazis, but we have enough war crimes against humanity committed by our governments that they should have been held accountable. Accountability is the key here. And what we see is that there is no real judicial accountability. There is no justice at the basis of this. What we heard was we captured bin Laden and killed him and that’s justice. Well, they didn’t capture him; they killed him on sight. That’s not justice. Justice is bringing someone to trial, hold them up for the world to see, and after conviction, throw away the key and let them rot in a prison cell. That’s what justice looks like. It doesn’t look like a raid in the middle of the night that is only aimed at killing someone.

JAY: Thanks for joining us.

BENNIS: Thank you.

JAY: And thank you for joining us on The Real News Network.

End of Transcript

DISCLAIMER: Please note that transcripts for The Real News Network are typed from a recording of the program. TRNN cannot guarantee their complete accuracy.

Creative Commons License

Republish our articles for free, online or in print, under a Creative Commons license.

Phyllis Bennis is a Fellow and the Director of the New Internationalism Project at the Institute for Policy Studies in Washington DC.  Her books include Understanding ISIS & the New Global War on Terror, and the latest updated edition of Understanding the Palestinian-Israeli Conflict: A Primer.