An instant classic from the New Yorker, far too valuable to be buried in a Headlines item this morning. Take 10 minutes to wash down the bitterness of the debt-ceiling fiasco with a moment of true American greatness.
My favorite part? The SEALs’ Pakistani-American translator, “Ahmed,” posing as a local cop and shooing Bin Laden’s neighbors away as they came by to ask what the ruckus was about. The moment of truth:
Three SEALs shuttled past Khalid’s body and blew open another metal cage, which obstructed the staircase leading to the third floor. Bounding up the unlit stairs, they scanned the railed landing. On the top stair, the lead SEAL swivelled right; with his night-vision goggles, he discerned that a tall, rangy man with a fist-length beard was peeking out from behind a bedroom door, ten feet away. The SEAL instantly sensed that it was Crankshaft. (The counterterrorism official asserts that the SEAL first saw bin Laden on the landing, and fired but missed.)
The Americans hurried toward the bedroom door. The first SEAL pushed it open. Two of bin Laden’s wives had placed themselves in front of him. Amal al-Fatah, bin Laden’s fifth wife, was screaming in Arabic. She motioned as if she were going to charge; the SEAL lowered his sights and shot her once, in the calf. Fearing that one or both women were wearing suicide jackets, he stepped forward, wrapped them in a bear hug, and drove them aside. He would almost certainly have been killed had they blown themselves up, but by blanketing them he would have absorbed some of the blast and potentially saved the two SEALs behind him. In the end, neither woman was wearing an explosive vest.
A second SEAL stepped into the room and trained the infrared laser of his M4 on bin Laden’s chest. The Al Qaeda chief, who was wearing a tan shalwar kameez and a prayer cap on his head, froze; he was unarmed. “There was never any question of detaining or capturing him—it wasn’t a split-second decision. No one wanted detainees,” the special-operations officer told me. (The Administration maintains that had bin Laden immediately surrendered he could have been taken alive.) Nine years, seven months, and twenty days after September 11th, an American was a trigger pull from ending bin Laden’s life. The first round, a 5.56-mm. bullet, struck bin Laden in the chest. As he fell backward, the SEAL fired a second round into his head, just above his left eye. On his radio, he reported, “For God and country—Geronimo, Geronimo, Geronimo.” After a pause, he added, “Geronimo E.K.I.A.”—“enemy killed in action.”
That boldfaced part is the newsiest bit from the piece — that they never really had any intention of capturing him, notwithstanding the intel value of interrogation. They must have figured, correctly, that there was plenty of intel to be had elsewhere in the house and on his hard drives, enough so that they weren’t going to bother dealing with the endless migraines of housing him and trying him. In that sense, the raid is a nifty microcosm of Obama’s drone-dependent terror strategy: Better to neutralize these guys on the spot and forfeit any organizational info they might have than capture them and fumble with the political hot potato of detention. Besides, even though they suspected that the house wasn’t wired — the presence of children reportedly led the SEALs to believe OBL had let down his guard, although I’m not sure why — there was no telling what might happen once they were in front of him. How do you take a chance when you’re on his turf and he’s been anticipating this moment for almost 10 years?
Fun fact: Before the raid, some CIA analysts studying the compound thought the odds of Bin Laden being there were as low as 40 percent. Gutsy call!