Debate on the morality of assassination; Proposition wins 427-151

Is assassination a morally justifiable foreign policy tool? This question faced the debaters Monday in a packed Chapin Hall at the second debate organized by the Williams College Debate Union.

George Stephanopolous, visiting professor at Columbia University and former political strategist for President Bill Clinton, and Dr. Richard Betts, professor of political science and director of the Institute of War and Peace Studies at Columbia University lead the proposition and opposition teams respectively.

The proposition team, arguing that assassination is a morally justifiable foreign policy tool, included Stephanopolous, Assistant Professor of Political Science James McAllister and Jonathan Kravis ’99, president of the debate team at Williams. The opposition team was made up of Betts, Assistant Professor of Philosophy Samuel W. Fleischacker and Robert Wiygul ’00, captain of the debate team.

The debate followed the parliamentary style used by the Oxford Union, as described in the introductory remarks made by Benjamin Monnie ’98.

As during the last debate, audience members were encouraged to participate both through feet-stomping, clapping and cheering, as well as booing and hissing. Some audience members also took the opportunity given them to address the debaters with two-minute speeches following the six speeches. All audience members were asked to express their opinions on which side offered the strongest arguments by exiting through the appropriately marked door upon leaving the hall, thus casting their vote.

After the debaters were introduced by Lesley Blum ’98, Kravis began by presenting the position of the proposition, stating that his side intended to argue that assassination is similar to other foreign policy tools, which can be used and misused, and is morally justifiable and even preferable to other actions in certain situations. One of the benefits cited was the minimizing of suffering, an argument which appeared often during the evening as the proposition argued in favor of assassination as an alternative to war, which would involve the deaths of soldiers and civilians. “If you ever believe it’s okay to send innocent soldiers to die. . .then you have to believe it’s okay to assassinate those who do make [policy] decisions and are morally responsible,” Kravis said. He pointed out that when opposition when makes their arguments they must show what aspect of the nature of assassination makes it unjustifiable.

Wiygul presented the oppositions intentions to show that assassination in not an effective policy, with large costs both when it is successful and when it is not, which can be easily abused. As the debate mostly touched upon the actions of the United States and the decisions of the president,, Wiygul questioned the moral judgment of the president and asserted a need for accountability. A point of information from Kravis, which he repeated often during the debate, asked how the opposition accounts for the fact that the president has tremendous powers as Chief Executive of U.S. armed forces, with its arsenal of nuclear and other weapons, and yet can’t be considered accountable to make good decisions concerning assassinations.

McAllister clarified his position by saying that he is “not necessarily in favor of assassination, but a policy of lawful homicide.” In making this distinction, he asserted the legality and morality of what he terms lawful homicide, claiming that it is justified by international law. Arguing that according to international law, “nothing can prevent any nation from taking measures to prevent armed attack.” McAllister referred to just war theory, arguing that “if there is such a thing as a just war, there are such things as just assassinations or lawful homicide.”

Fleischacker clarified the opposition’s position, saying that they were not arguing against assassination in general, but that it is not okay for officials of the United States to decide to assassinate foreign leaders. Fleischacker further pointed out that assassination is generally a secret policy, and that such a policy is more prone to misuse. He elaborated, stating that just as only Congress, and not the President, can declare war, the President should not have the authority to order political assassinations. He strengthened his side’s argument by arguing that if the United States employs assassination as a foreign policy tool, it may appear to others in the world as if the United States is engaging in terrorism. Thus, it would become difficult to continue to justify any opposition to terrorism. Continuing this line of argument, Fleischacker asked the audience if we would feel comfortable with other nations using assassination, and argued that it would be hypocritical to condemn them for this. He concluded by saying that only those in the audience who have complete confidence in the political savvy and moral judgment of our leaders, and in our assessment of how the rest of the world will react to our use of assassination, should exit through the door marked for the proposition, and that otherwise, they should “pick the only sensible door.”

Stephanopolous continued the arguments for the proposition, saying that although war should always be used as a last resort, when faced with the necessity of war and fighting, we should attempt to do it in “the most moral way possible.” To the enthusiastic reaction of the audience, his response to the arguments concerning terrorism was to offer a redefinition of terrorism as “killing the innocent to coerce the powerful” and of assassination as “killing the powerful to protect the powerless.” In referring continually to the necessity of facing “evil,” he argued that even if we maintain a policy that prohibits the use of assassination, for the case of certain rare exceptions which warrant and demand its use, the United States should reserve the option of assassination. “The problem is that we have been too reluctant to target the guilty.”

Betts clarified his stance when he said that his objection to assassination comes from a Machiavellian standard of pragmatism. Directly challenging the proposition side, he said, “I would like examples of your favorite successful, good political assassinations.” He also claimed that it would be difficult to conceal United States involvement in an assassination today, and echoed the consequences of failed attempts pointed out by Fleischacker. He questioned what qualifies as lawful homicide, using McAllister’s phrasing, and clarified what he meant by assassination, as distinct from serious warfare which happens to be targeting an individual, and would therefore not be subject to the same arguments. He concluded by saying that the U.S. does not have to do away with other covert actions simply because of the complications associated with assassination.

Betts’s speech was followed by short speeches from the floor, and then concluding and summarizing arguments from Wiygul and Kravis.