A Commentary on Human Shields: A History of People in the Line of Fire

This essay is part of a symposium on Neve Gordon and Nicola Perugini’s Human Shields. All contributions to the symposium can be found here.

A few minutes before midnight on May 1, 2011, President Barak Obama went on television to announce that the nation’s most wanted man was dead. Al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden, who orchestrated the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001 that killed almost three thousand people, now lay in a watery grave in an undisclosed location. “Justice has been done,” Obama said.

This was a targeted killing operation directed by the CIA from headquarters in Langley, Virginia. The boots on the ground and the fingers on the triggers were special forces from Navy SEAL Team 6. As it went down, President Obama, Vice President Joe Biden, and top cabinet officials watched a live feed from the Situation Room as CIA director Leon Panetta narrated. Stealth helicopters penetrated Pakistan’s airspace undetected. They landed in a compound on the outskirts of the city of Abbottabad where bin Laden was living in hiding. There was a shootout in the courtyard that left several of bin Laden’s bodyguards dead. The SEALs entered the house. They found their target in a second-floor bedroom. Shots were fired. Then Panetta, using bin Laden’s code name, said, “Geronimo EKIA.” Enemy killed in action.

The following morning, in the initial attempt to craft an even more riveting narrative, officials claimed that bin Laden was armed when the SEALs entered the bedroom, that there was a firefight before he was killed, and that he had attempted to use one of his wives as a human shield. These embellishments were all untrue. What purpose were they trying to serve?

The mythic firefight would boost the derring-do image of the SEALs and perceptions of the operation as something other than an extrajudicial execution of an unarmed terror suspect, and it would moot any question of why he wasn’t taken alive. The wife-as-human-shield claim would further demonize bin Laden as someone with no regard for anyone’s life and cement his legacy as a quivering coward in the face of death.

Neve Gordon and Nicola Perugini’s wonderful new book, Human Shields: A History of People in the Line of Fire, takes readers on a trip around the world and across time from the mid-nineteenth century to the present to trace the evolving meaning of “the human” through changes in the laws and logics of kill-ability in war. This history is told from the vantage point of human shields, “marginal and controversial” figures in the laws of armed conflict because they are not combatants and thus are not the intended targets but they are also not (or no longer) protected civilians when they are placed involuntarily or place themselves voluntarily in the shooting or bombing path of armed adversaries. Changing norms about which kinds of humans-as-shields should be spared—that is, which kinds of humans work as shields, and which kinds can be killed, whether with regret or indifference— refract variations in the sociopolitical valuation of life in the exercise of lethal violence.

Gordon and Perugini’s analysis of human shielding provides useful heuristics to interpret the admixture of truths and fabrications that spun out of Washington in the aftermath of the bin Laden operation. The official narrative of this operation’s “surgical” precision exemplifies the current state of “humane warfare” in which surveillance technologies and other forms of discernment are used by militaries to distinguish legitimate targets from everyone else and the “ethical violence” efforts that are made to design and execute operations in ways that kill only those whose deaths are necessary—a necessity that can put human shields into the killable category. At the same time, however, it is the operation’s very precision that illuminates the singularity of this extra-high-value killing in an era of kill operations.

Politically, the killing of bin Laden was celebrated by the American public as an unadulterated—and rare—victory in the “war on terror” which, in 2011, was entering its second decade. Legally, the legitimacy of the operation hinged on the (widely accepted) contention that bin Laden was a legitimate military target. But then, the Obama administration claimed that everyone who was targeted was a legitimate object of war and, regardless of whether they were killed by drone strikes or aerial bombings or death squads, the events of their deaths were consistently described as “enemy killed in action.” By April 2011, targeted killing operations were occurring at a rate of 1,000 per month. Gordon and Perugini explain the underlying logic:

With the war on terror, the U.S. military resurrected the use of a legal category it coined during the Vietnam War and began referring to all men who are killed during strikes as “military-aged males”—or MAMs. In this way, it classifies practically all men…as potential terrorists or combatants, and thus as people whom it is “acceptable to put to death.”…Once the category of combatants is expanded so dramatically to include all men and teenage boys within war zones, then women and children become the only possible recipients of the human shielding charge…It also reveals why it is often assumed that Western militaries very rarely kill civilians: when nearly all the men are characterized as killable MAMs and the women and children as human shields, then very few people are left in the category of “civilian.” (186)

If the option of killing enemies remotely was so incontrovertibly lawful, as the Obama administration claimed, why not just drone-bomb the whole compound, knowing that the inevitable civilian deaths could be written off as collateral damage? Why assume all the risks that the operation entailed in order to kill bin Laden in person? Had Obama chosen aerial bombing, he could have rationalized it using the one-way war-making military necessity calculation that undergirds the drone warfare model: kill enemies while minimizing or eliminating harm to U.S. forces.

Obama, it was widely reported, was full of humanitarian concern about the women and children known to be in the compound. This fine-grained “proportionality calculation” on the part of the president was one of the factors that made the bin Laden operation so singular. Had Obama opted to go the typical route of aerial bombing, he could have used the off-the-rack-ready argument that bin Laden himself bore responsibility for the deaths of the women and children in his proximity; like all the women and children who die in drone strikes, those in the compound would have been stripped of their protected status as civilians and recast as either voluntary or involuntary human shields who, either way, can be sacrificed in the violent algebraic calculations of necessity, proportionality, and distinction.

The claim that bin Laden had used the wife who was with him in the bedroom as a human shield was an especially odd and ill-considered fabrication. In the contemporary logic of humane warfare, it would have been perfectly “ethical” for the SEALs to shoot through her to get to him. And had there actually been a firefight, it is impossible to imagine that bin Laden would have survived even a second longer just because he put his wife in the line of fire because, in US military doctrine, humans can’t shield a legitimate target from lethal force. Rather, the accusation that bin Laden used a wife as a shield serves an entirely different purpose.

Gordon and Perugini regard the functionality of the accusation that women and children are used as shields as a way of reinscribing “our” (non-white, formerly colonized, Muslim) enemies as barbarians and re-dispelling them from civilization. “Through this narrative, the principle of distinction is racialized: nonwhites fight by intentionally undermining the distinction between combatants and innocent women and children. The ability to make distinctions and the insistence on their significance continue to be presented as part of the West’s cultural, technological, and ethical superiority, especially in relation to the war on terror—a war waged in the name of humanity even though it regularly fails to distinguish between civilians and combatants” (188).

If the purpose of accusing bin Laden of using his own wife as a human shield was intended to reinforce the line between civilization and barbarity, the aftermath of the operation provided a reminder of how feeble that line actually is. When bin Laden’s whereabouts were confirmed in early 2011 and high-level discussions got underway about what to do, Obama probably engaged in a political calculation, figuring that if he was captured, there would have been immediate and overwhelming demands to torture him. Since Obama cancelled the torture program that had been instituted by his predecessor on his second day in office, he had been subjected to nonstop derision for abandoning techniques that a majority of Americans endorse. If bin Laden was dead, he calculated, there would be no right-wing bemoaning of the missed opportunity to torture him.

So imagine the Obama administration’s shock when it lost control of the civilizing narrative about the bin Laden operation almost immediately. Torture enthusiasts ascribed credit for the kill to the waterboard. In a May 2 interview on ABC News, former Vice President Dick Cheney, the driver of the Bush administration’s decisions to torture, speculated about the role of the “enhanced interrogation program that we put in place back in our first term.” He continued, “All I know is what I’ve seen in the newspaper at this point, but it wouldn’t be surprising if in fact that program produced results that ultimately contributed to the success of this venture.”[1] A similar sentiment was expressed by Berkeley law professor John Yoo, who had authored some of the memoranda providing legal cover for the use of waterboarding and other violent and degrading tactics when he worked in the Office of Legal Counsel from 2001 to 2003. According to Yoo: “Without the tough decisions taken by President Bush and his national security team, the United States could not have found and killed bin Laden. It is the continuity of policies in the war on terror that has brought success, not the misguided effort of the last two years to disavow them.”[2] In a Fox News interview with Sean Hannity on May 3, former defense secretary Donald Rumsfeld said, “I think that anyone who suggests the enhanced techniques, let’s be blunt, waterboarding, did not produce an enormous amount of valuable intelligence just isn’t facing the truth.”[3]

The revival of the torture debate overtook the celebratory coverage of the killing of bin Laden. The Obama administration had to release more information to try to persuade the public that it was not the waterboard but “normal interrogation procedures” and years of conventional spy work and electronic surveillance that had led the SEALs to the compound. The messaging involved efforts to disprove the purported efficacy of torture and its non-role in the tracking of bin Laden in order to push back against the pro-torture sentiments that run deep in the United States.

Nothing demonstrates the line between civilization and barbarity like loud clamoring to resurrect and celebrate the waterboard.


[1]Dick Cheney, interview Jonathan Karl, ABC News, May 2, 2011, https://abcnews.go.com/Politics/transcript-abc-news-jonathan-karl-interviews-vice-president/story?id=13512168.

[2] John Yoo, American Enterprise Institute blog post, May 2, 2011.

[3] Donald Rumsfeld, interview with Sean Hannity, Fox News, May 3, 2011.

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About Lisa Hajjar

Lisa Hajjar is a professor of sociology at the University of California – Santa Barbara. Her work focuses on issues relating to law and conflict, specifically military courts and occupations, torture and targeted killing. Publications include Courting Conflict: The Israeli Military Court System in the West Bank and Gaza (University of California Press, 2005) and Torture: A Sociology of Violence and Human Rights (Routledge 2013). She is currently working two books, one titled The War in Court: The Inside Story of the Fight against US Torture in the “War on Terror” which is under contract with University of California Press, and the other titled Genealogies of Human Rights in the Arab World, coauthored with Omar Dewachi.