Proper Burial

Patricio Navia

Buenos Aires Herald, May 10, 2011


Because of the history of U.S. Latin American relations and as a result of the painful memory of human rights violations carried out by military dictatorships in the region, the U.S. operation that resulted in the death of Osama Bin Laden was not greeted in Latin America with the same enthusiasm and support it received in the U.S.


The killing of Biin Laden can be deemed questionable on existing international protocols and on common sense. From a Latin American viewpoint, the way the U.S. disposed of the body inevitably raises eyebrows and brings back painful memories of a time that no one in Latin America wants to relive.


The U.S. went into two wars in its quest to fight a war against terrorism. Washington claimed that the capture of Bin Laden and the destruction of Al Qaeda justified military interventions in Afghanistan and Iraq. After spending more than 1 trillion dollars and with almost 5000 American soldiers dead, and tens of thousands of Iraqi and Afghani civilian casualties, the capture of Bin Laden can help bring to an end both wars—though the war against terrorism, an unidentified enemy, can never end. Thus, it is understandable that American public opinion is more concerned with the celebrations and the discussion of what comes next than with what happened with Bin Laden’s remains.


In the U.S., there was ample support for the way the American government conducted this intelligence operation, entering Pakistan without a formal authorization. In Latin America, where the memories of American intervention in domestic affairs still linger, that decision raised eyebrows. If one ignores the identity of the man being hunted for almost ten years by the U.S., it is hard to justify entering another country illegally to assassinate a man—and killing a few apparently innocent bystanders. This operation can be construed as yet another evidence of American imperialism.


No one wants to appear as defending the most wanted terrorist in the world, but several intellectuals have raised concerns about the convenience of killing Bin Laden, rather than capturing him.  When more details become available, we will know if capturing Bin Laden alive and bringing him to the United States to stand trial, or turning him over to an international court, was really an option. Because of the complex political and legal complications that such a high profile trial on crimes against humanity would entail, many people in the U.S. government are relieved that Osama died in the attack. Though legal scholars and human rights advocates might have liked to use the opportunity to set a legal precedent for dealing with such high profile international terrorists, for the Obama administration, capturing Bin Laden dead was clearly better than capturing alive.  Thus, one might suspect that Obama did not ask the Navy Seals to make a special effort to capture him alive. For the American public, that decision is noncontroversial. However, for many people in Latin America, the decision to assassinate Osama without trying to capture him first is questionable. Some objectors are more interested in damaging the United States’ reputation.  After Abu Ghraib, Guantánamo, waterboarding and the weapons of mass destruction fabrications, there is precedent to accuse the U.S. of inhuman treatment of unarmed enemy combatants and to question American’ self-assigned higher moral ground.  Other critics have simply focused on the principle, even despicable human rights violators have human rights themselves.


However, the most controversial issue in Latin America has been the way the U.S. got rid of Bin Laden’s body. By “easing” the remains into the ocean, the U.S. used a practice infamously associated with military dictatorships in Latin America in the 1970s. The explanations offered by the U.S. for this decision are unconvincing. True, a burial site would be a natural location for an improvised shrine for Bin Laden sympathizers. However, in the absence of a burial site, the place where he was killed will do just fine as an unofficial memorial a few years from now.  If the U.S. wanted to comply with Muslim traditions, the apparent unwillingness of Saudi Arabia to accept the body, within the 24 hour time limit required for a funeral to be held, did not justify departing from the same Muslim tradition and throw the body into the ocean. The traumatic history of the desaparecidos has left deep wounds in Latin America and has transformed a proper burial into one of the basic human rights. 


In Latin America, the historic success of the U.S. government in capturing Bin Laden has been tainted by the absence of a proper burial. Unfortunately, as it happened after Che Guevara was killed in Bolivia in 1967, the way in which the body of the Al Qaeda leader has been dealt with will, in the long term, contribute to victimize the man and divert attention from his shameful legacy of terrorist attacks and his discourse of hate. Though it is unlikely that Latin Americans will wear anytime soon Bin Laden shirts in the same fashion as Che Guevara’s, the unnecessarily controversial way in which the U.S. got rid of his remains leaves a sour aftertaste.