If bin Laden Was Unarmed, Why Was He Shot?

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Updated 3:02 p.m.

A major question lingers unanswered at the center of this story: Why was bin Laden killed? Michael Scherer has reported that the Navy Seals who landed at Osama bin Laden’s safehouse were not given orders specifically to kill, but were on a “kill or capture” mission. That implies they were prepared to accept bin Laden’s surrender. It didn’t work out that way. But despite earlier reports to the contrary, including from White House counter-terror adviser John Brennan, Press Secretary Jay Carney told reporters Tuesday that bin Laden was in fact unarmed. (“Resistance does not require a firearm,” he said.) So, what happened?

Obviously American forces kill terrorists and enemy fighters all the time with no due process; even as I write this, a Reaper drone is probably closing in on some doomed mullah in the Pakistani tribal areas. It’s also obvious that taking bin Laden into custody would be an utter nightmare for the Obama administration. Imagine the endless thorny questions about how to interrogate the al-Qaeda leader, whether and where to put him on trial–and how public such a trial should be, with all the attendant possibilities for bin Laden to make a Saddam-like spectacle of himself. No one wants to spend the next couple of years dealing with all that.

But those are not supposed to be factors in a decision to kill someone during a raid like the one that ended in bin Laden’s death early Monday in Pakistan. Nor are they the ones cited in initial accounts about that operation. So, what happened? What exactly was bin Laden doing in the moments before he was gunned down? Did he threaten the SEALs who confronted him, perhaps by reaching for a gun? Did he have an object that looked like a weapon but wasn’t? Or did someone have an overwhelming human impulse to dispatch perhaps the most hated man in America with a quick “double-tap.”

Was this, in other words, a combat death–or, in all practical terms, an execution? The White House needs to explain this in clear detail as soon as possible.

Update: Was it a kill or capture mission in official name only? A friend reminds me of this passage from today’s PoliticoPlaybook“:

Officials described the reaction of the special operators when they were told a number of weeks ago that they had been chosen to train for the mission. “They were told, ‘We think we found Osama bin Laden, and your job is to kill him,’” an official recalled. The SEALs started to cheer.

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