“I don’t care,” President Bush said last weekend. “Dead or alive, either way. I mean, it doesn’t matter to me.” I don’t know if the president was being disingenuous about Osama Bin Laden’s fate or just insufficiently thoughtful, but in fact it’s not an obvious question whether we want him dead or alive, and it’s complicated by the wrinkle that, in a landscape of caves and tunnels, we might not know whether we’ve killed him or not. Thus there is a subsidiary question of if we want it known whether he is dead or alive—and if so, what price we are willing to pay for that knowledge.
Think of it as a 2-by-2 matrix in which we get to choose both the row (is he dead?) and the column (do we know it?):
Known dead Unknown dead
Known alive Unknown alive
So, how do we rank these preferences? In terms of his own power to make further trouble for the world, it almost doesn’t matter whether he’s dead, alive but in custody, or alive and holed up somewhere. The advantage of his being dead is that it would spare us the many problems of having to try and punish him. It would also be a valuable propaganda victory in the larger war against terrorism, and would be discouraging if not fatal to what is left of OBL’s own worldwide terror network. That, of course depends on his being known to be dead. So KD is the most obvious first choice.
Why wouldn’t we want him dead or want that to be known? Some people think that putting him on trial would be a useful or noble enterprise—and perhaps don’t believe in the death penalty even in this case. For these folks, the best outcome is KA.
A more interesting argument is that OBL’s death will actually be a propaganda negative—not because anyone will mind very much, but because it will stop the flow of domestic political adrenaline, cause people to lose interest, and diminish the sense of urgency that has held together the worldwide anti-terror coalition. For people who think this way, the first choice might be UD.
A very different group of people might also favor UD: military folks. That’s because they know that knowledge comes at a price. It’s a lot less costly in terms of soldiers’ lives to kill only those enemy fighters holed up in caves who are shooting at us, than to find out who was at one time or another in every last one of them but was not shooting. Is that extra knowledge worth, say, 20 American lives? Ten? If our military objective is accomplished and there’s an overwhelming likelihood that one of the unidentifiable or unreachable bodies is OBL’s, many soldiers would say that’s good enough. Don’t make me die for a photograph.
This conundrum is similar to something military commanders have experienced before, whenever they have known they were in danger of leaving dead on the battlefield. They have to ask themselves if exposing live soldiers to hostile fire purely to recover dead ones makes military sense. And surely, sometimes, given the overall combat situation, it does not.
And is there any argument for UA—Bin Laden’s fate is unknown but he’s actually alive? It’s an obvious second choice for those who want him dead-cert dead. But the only person who might make it his first choice is OBL himself.
Would he, though? Considering how OBL might analyze these options is useful because this is what’s called a zero-sum game: Our interests and his are diametrically opposed. There is no possibility of a “win-win” solution. If our outcome preferences aren’t the opposite of what we suppose his are, we ought to wonder whether we’ve got it right.
It’s not inconceivable that at this point OBL thinks his martyrdom at the hands of the infidel would actually be the best thing he could do to give impetus to his cause. That is, as of now, KD might actually be, not his least valued option, but his most valued one. And if OBL were right in assessing the reaction to his death of his core Muslim audience, then it would follow that actually the U.S. top value would be not KD, but UD. This sort of thinking actually came into play immediately after the fall of Berlin in World War II, when (according to the authoritative work of British historian Hugh Trevor-Roper) the Russians interfered with their allies’ attempts to find out exactly what became of Hitler, out of fear that a verified corpse would only serve as an energizing talisman for the surviving Nazi faithful.
But Osama Bin Laden seems more like the kind of guy who makes martyrs than the kind who becomes one. His best outcome, at this point, would be alive-but-believed-to-be-dead. Or, since that’s not an option in this game (or, probably, in life), his first choice is UA—alive, but his fate unknown. He’d get most of the benefits of martyrdom (at least the earthly benefits) without the obvious disadvantages.