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Keeler: Bullets let Osama bin Laden off too easy

"We're big and strong enough to have put

"We're big and strong enough to have put Osama bin Laden on trial -- and sent him to prison for life. Instead, our bullets let him off too easy," writes Bob Keeler. Credit: Paul Tong / Tribune Media Services

As President Barack Obama seems likely to remind us all the way to Election Day, Osama bin Laden is dead. His bullet-riddled exit from the world stage did seem suitable for someone who had not only unleashed unthinkable violence -- played out on our television screens again yesterday -- but accelerated our nation's transformation into an all-powerful, all-seeing surveillance state.

I'd argue that our national purposes would have been served better if bin Laden had been made to stand trial for the horrific crimes he plotted.

This is not a new issue, but it's one raised again this week because of the anniversary of the 9/11 attacks and the publication of a new book, "No Easy Day," by a member of the Navy SEAL unit that killed him.

Controversy surrounds the book itself. Should Mark Bissonnette, the author, have written it at all? Given the growing body of SEAL books, tapping into a national fascination with this lethally elite corps, a how-we-got-bin-Laden book was pretty much inevitable.

The other question is whether Bissonnette should have submitted it for Pentagon review before publication. The Department of Defense argues that it contains sensitive and classified information; Bissonnette says he was careful not to reveal anything that would endanger other SEAL operations. As both a former intelligence officer who kept secrets in Korea and a journalist who abhors them, I am sympathetic to the author's rejection of pre-publication review. But he may yet face sanctions by the government.

As to the book's substance, it raises again the question of exactly what happened on May 2, 2011. Earlier accounts had bin Laden dying in a firefight. Bissonnette says bin Laden poked his head out into a hallway and a member of the team immediately shot him. Moments later, they fired several more rounds into his still-convulsing body.

Bissonnette insists that it was not a kill-only mission, that capture was part of the team's purpose. There's no use trying to second-guess the split-second decision by one SEAL to fire; he didn't know if bin Laden was armed or not. After the fact, Bissonnette writes, the team found weapons in the room where bin Laden died -- but they weren't loaded. The author says he was disgusted by the terrorist leader, who sent others out to die for his cause, then chose not even to put up a fight for himself.

We may never know for certain whether the orders for this mission left open the possibility of capture. But the fact remains: Bin Laden sleeps with the fishes instead of standing in the dock. That's clearly a second-best outcome.

Our nation was strong enough, after all, to lead in the prosecution of Nazi war criminals after World War II. As wicked as bin Laden's terrorist plots were, they didn't come close to the genocidal scale of the Nazis we tried at Nuremberg. The public airing of their evil was something the world needed, and the same is true of bin Laden. A trial would have held him responsible more satisfactorily than a quick bullet to the head.

There would have been problems, such as the specter of his representing himself and using the trial to spread his poisonous ideology. And it would have been a political minefield for the Obama administration. Still, it would have demonstrated powerfully the strength of our democratic institutions.

To some, bin Laden seemed too scary for a trial. We had elevated to mythic proportions a man who may once have been a formidable enemy, but was reduced to watching TV in his hideout and dyeing his hair to stave off old age. We're big and strong enough to have put him on trial -- and sent him to prison for life. Instead, our bullets let him off too easy.

Bob Keeler is a member of the Newsday editorial board.