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Taking Out the Trash

I’m opposed to the death penalty, as most judges are in private. It’s not something we can say out loud when the most common reason is not trusting our own lives to the system that decides life or death for others. We can’t make a habit of admitting the system makes mistakes. Still, the summary execution of Osama bin Laden was like a long cold drink of water on a hot day.

I don’t normally kill dogs either but you must put down a mad dog when there is no serious question about the madness. Having killed thousands, he could not be left at large. What were we going to do with him? As satisfying as a trial might have been, he would be a hostage magnet. How many innocent people would we let his minions kill because we refuse to release him?

In short, if I may switch metaphors, we had to take out the trash—not just our trash, but the world’s trash, and the SEALs added to the glory they gained in the hostage rescue against the Somalian pirates, when they had to nail simultaneous head shots from one bobbing seacraft to another bobbing seacraft and a miss would mean death for the hostage. I’m surely glad those guys are on our side.

In the circles where I travel, the question often comes up: Should Indians serve in the US military? Since my son has done two Iraq tours and I have done my hitch during Vietnam, I guess I voted with my feet. My Cherokee dad served in the South Pacific in WWII as well. This time, however, the only question I’ve heard is whether there were Indians on SEAL Team Six, something we may never know. This mission involved taking out the world’s trash, not just serving Uncle Sam.

Just within my extended family, there’s a SEAL and a Marine, so the probability that some of us might know the heroes who did this deed is high. If we need any other reason to admire these guys, there are the Mohawk high steel workers who helped build the twin towers and the Gold Star mothers all over Indian country.

As an Air Force vet, I can’t resist pointing out that this mission was a lot scarier than most people have noticed. The President ordered the SEALs to “fight their way out” if they had to. We had AWACS and fighter cover in the air, and if the Pakistani air force had moved in on our choppers our airmen would have engaged them.

All this risk when we did not know for certain the mad dog was there! President Obama chose this high risk mission and watched it in real time. If it had gone bad, he would be a major goat. Some of us are old enough to remember President Carter’s attempt to rescue American hostages in Iran, a mission that did Carter immense harm when it went wrong with everybody claiming it had too many moving parts and was bound to fail.

The Abbottabad raid also had a lot of moving parts. It was a gutsy call and to the extent it wins Obama political points, he deserves them.

In spite of the gut-level feeling that justice has been done, in spite of the refreshing sense of relief, I still have to wonder, why did a raid on the lair of this animal get related to Geronimo? When I was in the service, one might shout the name of the Apache warrior when charging into a very difficult situation. I understand that. “Geronimo was fearless; so am I!”

Then there are military helicopters named Apache, Cayuse, Chinook, Choctaw, Iroquois, Kiowa, Shawnee, and Sioux. I’ve never heard any objection to this, because it’s not the same thing as the corporations that rip off tribal names for profit because we never thought to register our names as trademarks.

Geronimo was not a terrorist. He lived in a time when the rules differed. His first turn to warfare was inspired by the death of his wife and children at the hands of Mexican troops. From that time, he devoted himself to fighting the invaders, no matter which flag they flew.

As I write what I believe to be the truth about Geronimo, I can practically hear the catcalls about “political correctness.” Well, yes. It should not be considered politically correct to associate your worst enemy with people you expect to fight at your side.

My opposition to the death penalty makes an exception for the likes of Osama bin Laden, and I would also like to add a death penalty for the stereotype of American Indians as savage terrorists. President Obama, I hope you will think about this the next time you decide to take out the trash.

Steve Russell, Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma, is a Texas trial court judge by assignment and associate professor emeritus of criminal justice at Indiana University-Bloomington. He is a columnist for Indian Country Today. He lives in Georgetown, Texas, and can be reached at