Could bin Laden have been tried like Eichmann?

Much has been said and written this week about the fact that Osama bin Laden was unarmed when he was shot and killed.

I haven’t heard anything like outrage, but a lot of, well, mild discomfort.

The general feeling seems to be “I’m glad his dead, he got what he deserved, and I hope it brings some sense of closure to 9/11 families and the nation, but…could he have been taken alive?”

So I want to highlight a brief but provocative column on the subject by Deborah Lipstadt, the author of a new book on the trial of Adolf Eichmann. An interesting parallel, no?

She writes in the Forward:


Adolf Eichmann was responsible for the murder of close to 1.5 million Jews. Bin Laden had far less blood on his hands. And while both men wished to kill as many Jews as possible, bin Laden was, of course, also interested in killing any American or “Westerner” he could. Each man was ferreted out, in the end, by forces operating clandestinely on foreign soil. Both operations were decisive, swift and successful.

But, of course, what happened to bin Laden and Eichmann after each was located was radically different. One was shot and killed on the spot; the other was put on trial.

It was not inevitable, however, that this would be Eichmann’s fate. It was a decision by David Ben-Gurion that prevented Eichmann from ending up like bin Laden and having justice delivered immediately, with a bullet to the head.


Lipstadt writes about the presiding judge at Eichmann’s trial, Moshe Landau, a member of Israel’s High Court, trying to make the trial normal and undramatic. “The evidence and the testimony would be emotional enough; he did not have to add anything to it,” she writes.

Lipstadt can’t help wondering what a bin Laden trial would have looked like. Military or civilian? Judging by the difficulty that the Obama administration has faced in trying to decide what to do with 9/11 mastermind Khalid Sheikh Mohammed and others, the decisions over what to do with bin Laden would have been riveting and enormously challenging.

She concludes with this: “While I am not sorry that bin Laden was shot, I regret that he never was shown the wonders of a democratic system of justice. It would have been the best response to the culture of death and hatred that this man represented.”

(AP photo)