Assassination: A moral responsibility

George Stephanopulous came to speak on the topic of political assassinations May 4. Thinking about this debate and the death of the notorious Pol Pot, I realized that assassination – if utilized correctly – can be of importance not only politically but morally as well.

In times of upheaval, evil men are able to capture power, and generally in an absolutist way. (In saying “men”, I am not being un-PC, I am merely acknowledging that throughout history it is men who have been the despots). These men capture and retain power by maintaining a permanent threat of violence towards the population. Inevitably, however, these despots, dictators and tyrants kill, torture, dismember, kidnap and blackmail millions of people. Is this just? Is it our duty to be bystanders, or is it to try to prevent or end massive suffering? In clear-cut cases of massive purges and civilian executions etc., it is the duty of a powerful state to monitor the situation. And since it is the nature of absolutist leaders to single-handedly determine all affairs of the state, the assassination of the despot would greatly reduce the suffering of the state. Furthermore, tyrants are very rarely followed by effective successors simply because tyrannies tend to end as violently and abruptly as they began. Assassination would change the dynamics of the state.

If assassination has the potential of saving many lives, then it is worth the trouble, expense and perhaps political embarrassment of execution. The assassination attempt on the Hamas leader, Khaled Meshaal, is a good example. The democratically elected government of Israel and, in fact, all governments have secret services bound to the ideal of protecting the state. In Israel — which has been plagued by the relatively new phenomenon of suicide bombs — the major objective is to prevent the inevitable suicide bombings and save its constituents from being blown apart. So what the Mossad did was attempt to diffuse the bombs before they were constructed by assassinating one of Hamas’s leaders — a man whom many blame for 1000 casualties of Israeli citizens, both Jews and Arabs.

Thus, political assassination has drawbacks and benefits. There are three significant benefits. If the assassination is successful, then the leader is dead and thus unable to continue his destruction. But even when it fails, assassination instills a sense of fear.

The threat of assassination might compel leaders to relax restrictive or tyrannical measures in fear of massive reprisal. It may also drive leaders to appear less in public, which may reduce their effectiveness. Most importantly, the threat of assassination may also compel leaders to reform.

By eliminating an unjust regime through the elimination of one unjust man, assassination can, in some instances, prevent a war in which wholly innocent people on both sides may be forced to fight and die for a cause they may not necessarily believe in.

The drawbacks of assassination are threefold. First, to organize, deploy and carry out a political assassination is expensive. The expense is compounded by the fact that most tyrannical men, or men who lead violent regimes, are generally paranoid.

Saddam Hussein, for example, never sleeps in the same place on two consecutive nights. Pol Pot, in the words of Elizabeth Baker of the New York Times, was prone to “making few public appearances even when in power, obscuring his identity, changing residences and warning of treachery from every corner”. Even Meshaal was followed by many permanent bodyguards (and obviously for good reason).

Ultimately, a botched assassination attempt makes a leader almost impossible to get at a second time, as happened in the case of Hitler.

The second drawback to assassination is that it entails the violation of a state’s national sovereignty. Now I know I will be seriously reprimanded by many, but to this I must say, “Sovereignty, schmovereignty.” If a tyrant is destroying a state’s infrastructure and is responsible for a million deaths in addition to the construction of a non-conventional arsenal; if a state is led by a brutal man who committed genocide on over a million people; if a state is harboring and protecting known terrorists; then it can be argued that a transgression of its borders is validated. Certainly, violation of a state’s sovereignty in an assassination attempt is a very unpopular practice internationally.

This was amply demonstrated by the barrage of bad publicity and international censures Israeli Prime Minister Bibi Netanyahu was pelted with following the attempt on Meshaal. However, in terms of Israel’s objectives — those of protecting its constituents and sending a message to terrorists — the attempt was worth the humiliation.

The third disadvantage of assassination is that the reactionary leader could become more reactionary, which would compound the problem assassinations were meant to solve. But if a careful choice is made on a target, and if a target is prominent and poses a danger both domestically and internationally, I see no reason why the option of assassination should not be carefully considered. In 1989, we knew how brutal Saddam Hussein was — he had ordered the death of numerous of his own family members, and is said to have killed his son-in-law with his own hands. He also used chemical weapons on Iran throughout the First Gulf War (about which the U.N. knew but did nothing) and on the Kurds numerous times in 1991.

It is quite plausible that, had the allied forces deposed Saddam Hussein in 1991, not only would a million Iraqis have been saved, but a nonconventional arms crisis in Iraq might have been prevented. The crisis in Iraq that has caused 600,000 children to die was not due to the criminal West imposing cruel and unnecessary punishments on Iraq, but to the unwillingness of Saddam Hussein to comply with international law and to his total disregard for his citizens. A good example of this abuse of human rights is the 16,000 disappearances in Iraq in the last decade. In 1997 alone, 1500 prisoners were executed, and the only notification their families received was the charge for the bullet. Would not the life of one man, such as in this case, be worth the prevention of widespread suffering?

The recent death of Pol Pot has reminded us of the destruction to a nation that one man can achieve. As a revolutionary communist, Pol Pot hoped to fashion a completely agrarian state from Cambodia. What he did was thoroughly destroy most of the state’s infrastructure. He also liquidated most of the professionals and indeed almost the entire literate population of Cambodia from 1975 until the Vietnamese invasion of 1979. The exact number of dead is unverifiable, but it is huge.The number of maimed and wounded, and the number of families permanently destroyed is even greater. The rumors that emanated from Cambodia were discounted for their extremity, but they were true. Had we investigated this matter, had we found the truth and eliminated Pol Pot, perhaps Cambodia’s fate could have been very different. Perhaps we could have saved thousands if not millions of lives. Would not an attempt at least have been justified? Do we not owe that to those who have died or who might yet die?