Thursday, May 5th, 2011...2:15 am

Obama’s “Bin Laden is Dead” Speech

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1. Word cloud of the speech


2. Ratings

Mashable reports that it received the highest TV rating since his election:



3. On “I can report… I directed… I determined…”

You might noticed that in the middle of the speech when describing the operation, President Obama used more “I”s than normal. The Fabius Maximus blog criticizes the personalized tone in Obama’s speech and takes it to mean that Obama was taking credit for this operation:

“It is unusual for an America President to so personalize something about which he obviously had so little role — and which more properly a national accomplishment. “

James Fallows echoes that it “was more personalized than it should have been”.

I don’t know anything about presidential speech writing, however I think that the “overuse” of first person pronoun here is very appropriate and discreet. My estimation is that it has nothing to do with taking credit for the “achievement”, let along attempting to score a few points for the 2012 election.

I think it is because that President Obama, as a former law professor, is well aware of the legal murkiness of “targeted killing” and therefore he had to take sole responsibility in commanding this operation.

From a legal perspective, terrorism itself raises the question of whether to address it as crime, or as war. No matter how “right” it feels to kill Osama bin Laden, we have to recognize that a government’s use of deadly force has to be constrained by both domestic criminal law as well as international human rights norms. In law enforcement, individuals are subject to the due process clause – the guilt of an individual must be proven in the court of law. Killing without trial is only allowed in very limited circumstances such as self-defense (note that Bin Laden was unarmed when he was shot). In almost any other case, it would be tantamount to extrajudicial execution or murder.

In addition, President Gerald Ford signed Executive Order 11905, which states, “No employee of the United States Government shall engage in, or conspire to engage in, political assassination.” Presidents Carter and Reagan renewed the prohibition in Executive Orders 12036 and 12333 respectively. And Reagan expanded this prohibition slightly in Executive Order 12333: “No person employed by or acting on behalf of the United States Government shall engage in, or conspire to engage in, assassination.” The exception, of course, would require a presidential finding.

In order to distinguish the prohibition of assassinations and targeting of individuals or groups who pose a direct threat to United States, the Bush Administration largely relied on a December 1989 memorandum of Law issued by W. Hays Parks, Special Assistant for Law of War Matters to The Judge Advocate General of the Army. Parks asserted that the prohibition did not preclude the targeted killing of enemy combatants in wartime or the killing in self-defense of individuals who pose a direct threat to U.S. citizens or national security in peacetime.

Public international law is ambiguous on “targeted killing”. Article 23b of the Hague Convention of 1899 outlaws “treacherous” attacks on adversaries. Though “treachery” is not explicitly defined, is it often construed, as in Army Field Manual’s interpretation(in paragraph 31), to mean that assassination falls into this category.

The justification of “targeted killing” is that terrorism is war and  jus in bello allows the killing of “enemy combatants.” Yet terrorist groups such as Al Qaeda pose problems for the “enemy combatant” paradigm because they do not abide the laws of the war on combatants such as wearing uniforms and distinguishable insignia. The Bush administration therefore deemed terrorists to be “unlawful combatants” despite that no category other than “combatants” and “civilians” are recognized in the international realm – as illustrated in Israeli High Court of Justice’s ruling on the Israeli practice of targeted killing operations in Gaza and West Bank.

While the killing of Bin Laden sounds like nothing but an achievement to his domestic audience, President Obama is acutely aware of the legal responsibility on no one but himself in ordering this operation.

For this reason  I believe that the multiple first person pronouns are evident of just how nuanced and crafted Obama’s speech is. I truly think that this is the best speech of his presidency so far.



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