The US Policy Against Assassination: Where should we draw the line?

Saturday, July 11, 2009

As we all know, it is against US policy to assassinate the leaders of foreign governments. My first reaction to this rule has always been positive. Killing anyone is a bad thing, even in self-defense. It may have been justified. It may have been necessary to save your own life, or the lives of family and countrymen, but it’s still a bad thing to have to kill anyone. I say this on moral grounds, intellectually speaking, having never found myself, thank goodness, in the position of having to take someone’s life to protect my own or the lives of others.

Government leaders are high profile people who are relatively easy to kill. Getting away with it is another story, but if you’re motivated and have sufficient resources at your disposable, it’s doable. Doable, maybe, but does it make any sense? Is a practical thing to do? We kill their President, they kill ours. What a mess. There are consequences, short- and long-term repercussions that are often unpredictable and counterproductive to our objectives. Moral issues notwithstanding, assassination is bad politics and no substitute for good foreign policy based on intelligent diplomacy.

So what’s my problem? My problem is that I’m not sure where we should draw the line. On a personal level, if someone threatens you with deadly force, with a loaded gun for example, if they present a “clear and present danger,” well, you have every right to defend yourself. In fact, you have the legal and common sense right to take preemptive action. You do not, in other words, have wait until you’ve been shot at to shoot back.

On a societal level, the police and our military overseas routinely hunt and often kill people who have demonstrated their willingness and ability to take the lives of innocents. A South Carolina serial killer – a lone gunman who was clearly not the leader of a sovereign nation – was himself recently killed in a shootout with a policeman. For similar reasons, our military, acting as our national police force overseas, has killed a good number of Al Qaida leaders and operatives – and is still aggressively looking for Osama bin Laden, dead or alive.

However many his followers, Mr. bin Laden is also not the leader of a sovereign nation. He’s a criminal, a murderer of innocents who routinely and repeatedly demonstrates his disregard for the lives of his followers and enemies alike. In every way I can imagine, bin Laden meets the criteria for a “clear and present danger” deserving of the use of lethal force, if necessary, to stop him. I have no reason to believe that bin Laden, himself, has ever killed anyone. Doesn’t make any difference, does it? Even if he’s never hurt anyone, personally, he’s recruited, trained and commanded his followers who have.

But what would happen if Mr. bin Laden was the not just a criminal on the run, but a head of state, the elected leader or dictator of a sovereign nation? …a head of state using national resources to recruit, train, arm and surreptitiously command followers whose demonstrated purpose is to kill innocent Americans and other nationals, perhaps including his own countrymen? Now what?

Our best, most civilized diplomatic efforts fair to even curtail, let alone stop the carnage. Other nations add their voices, but to no avail. Do we just let Mr. bin Laden hide behind his government title? If, heaven forbid, bin Laden or his counterpart in the Taliban were to seize control of the government of Afghanistan, is that it? Are they safe? Does the mantle of authority, democratically elected or not, somehow suddenly change everything?

Given that our government believed in the imminent threat of weapons of mass destruction, was the assassination of Saddam Hussein out of the question just because he was the leader of a sovereign nation? If Kim Jong-il’s North Korea poses a real, clear and present nuclear weapons threat to the United States and our allies in the region, and we believe that he, personally, is the problem, isn’t a preemptive assassination a more rational solution than war? I’m not suggesting it, mind you, just raising the question.

If it was up to me, what would be the fine print in our government’s policy against assassination? I don’t know, and it bothers me that I don’t.


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