Last Night's TV: Bin Laden: Shoot to Kill/Channel 4 <br/>Horizon/BBC2

Seal of approval for a smooth operator

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The Independent Culture

There were a lot of ways that the plan to get Osama bin Laden could have gone awry between the Americans' realisation that they might have found the most wanted man in the world and the moment that a Navy Seal pulled the trigger. But one potential pitfall that hasn't been widely reported on, as far as I'm aware, was the entrepreneurial instincts of Abbottabad's young cricket fans. Among the oddities that surveillance teams had noted about the compound was the fact that locals who accidentally skied a ball over the 12-foot walls were never allowed to go in and retrieve it. Instead, a guard would come to the door and give them money to go away and buy a new one, while the original went into an incinerator. Because this was a pretty good deal, the incidence of "lost balls" started to spike, to a degree that alarmed those watching, terrified that something might spook the inhabitants and send them on the run.

As Channel 4's Bin Laden: Shoot to Kill made clear, they couldn't be sure that Osama was actually inside, only that it represented their most promising lead in nearly 10 years. A single careless phone-call had led them to a man referred to as the Kuwaiti, a high-level al-Qa'ida courier whose name had repeatedly cropped up in interrogations. And then the Kuwaiti led them – by means that were pointedly not explained here beyond the frustratingly vague "tracking devices" – to Abbottabad and a house with more security than was really necessary for a herd of goats and a vegetable patch. After conducting "pattern of life" surveillance (it all got deliciously Tom Clancy at times), an unidentified man nicknamed the Pacer was singled out as the potential solution to the longest and most expensive game of Where's Wally ever conducted.

The problem was proving it. Attempts to triangulate the man's height from the shadow he cast proved inconclusive. All the President and his advisers had was a percentage probability, assessed as pretty high by those who'd been in on the know from the beginning but worryingly low by those called in on a red team exercise – fresh and unbiased eyes given the task of looking at the evidence without prejudice. Summarising figures that ran between a 30 and 70 per cent likelihood, Obama declared it a 50-50 bet. And then, in one of the toughest decisions of his presidency, he bet his political future and the lives of a lot of Americans on the toss of that coin. (It's possible, of course, that all this is a smokescreen and the Americans had some source they still don't want to admit to, but for the moment let's go with the official story).

There is a perspective from which you might view Obama's decision as reckless, but it's much harder to make that case this side of a right call. And Bin Laden: Shoot to Kill reminded you of what nerve he'd shown while the coin was in the air. Attending the White House Correspondents dinner that night, Obama had to laugh casually as jokes were made about Osama hiding in the Hindu Kush. And next day he had to watch as a Black Hawk went down and it looked as if historical fiasco was about to repeat itself. "That wasn't in the script," Obama said drily about a moment that must have been close to unbearable. The re-enactments that had been procured to fill out the documentary added almost nothing to our knowledge at all and must have actually falsified some moments: surely one of the Navy Seals murmured "Holy Shit!" when they were told, just minutes before they took off, who it was they were going to get? But there were some nice moments of tradecraft from the recollections. As Obama and his advisers assembled to watch the operation play out, pizzas were ordered from several different Washington take-outs, to avoid a bulk White House order alerting the press to the fact that something big was going down.

You won't be surprised to learn that Horizon's film "Are You Good or Evil?" did not answer that question, instead devoting itself to the somewhat dubious current scientific studies into psychopathy and the origins of moral behaviour. Where this stuff isn't pointlessly redundant (to learn that someone who murders young men and keeps their body parts in his fridge "lacks empathy" isn't really a huge revelation), it tends to be worryingly simplistic in its binary divisions. If you're interested in the subject you might do better to read Jon Ronson's book The Psychopath Test, which is a bit more questioning about the science involved and definitely has better jokes.