July 24, 2009

Sins and Assassins

What’s so bad about assassination, anyway?

Cheney probably shouldn’t have instructed the CIA to keep secrets from Congress. But it seems unlikely that he did it because he enjoyed telling people ‘I know something you don’t~’. Rather, it’s far more likely he foresaw that Congress, and the public at large, would somehow impute a glaring disconnect between targeted killings using Predator missiles, and targeted killings using actual people.

This distinction is clearly problematic. As a general rule, we now have a sliding spectrum of acceptable wartime actions, where selective strikes such as remote-drone eliminations are excellent (as demonstrated our gleeful reporting of such through media channels); mass, anonymous war with civilian casualties is “regrettable”, and targeted killings are barely a step above from war crimes.

The moral argument against assassination is shaky at best. From a utilitarian perspective, collateral damage on both sides should be dramatically reduced, were we to use trained teams to take out targets, rather than carpet-bombing an area or blowing up those unsuspecting wedding caravans that so frequently traipse across Afghanistan. Unless there’s some sort of moral imperative to give targets a fair chance (and even then, it’s not obvious that you have a better chance against a missile than an assassin squad), the alternative that reduces loss of innocent live would dominate.

Maybe then, we should consider the slippery-slope argument. If a major world player were to publicly sanction the use of assassination to resolve conflicts, it might lead to two detrimental outcomes. First, said player might end up using targeted assassinations more and more, on less and less important targets. Second, countries all over might follow this lead and establish targeted killings as a norm, leading to a War of Assassins (shoutout to those who get the reference).

But this again begs the question: Why is this bad? For the first scenario, we would need a persuasive reason to believe that the ability to legally use this option would dramatically increase the illegal use of the option. If the government could legally take out dictators in the Middle East, they, having tasted of the forbidden fruit, would be unable to restrain themselves from using it on, say, Rush Limbaugh. This seems unlikely, for the same reason that legalizing police sting operations hasn’t translated into policemen lurking in toilets waiting to catch ALL of us (only horny senators).

For the second, I’ll take a radical stance. Having assassination become a norm might actually be a pretty good thing. Are we fed up to the ears yet with old men dreaming up wars for young men to die in? At a first approximation, you would have less young people dying, since surgical strikes would be the order of the day. But what’s really interesting about it is that it might offer a great disincentive to leaders all over the world who wage war. The barriers to entry for creating an assassination squad are simply so much lower than that of raising an army, developing nuclear weapons, or even planning a terror strike. The main problem probably lies in insertion of the squad into the target location. However, one possible consequence of the normalization of “targeted killings” might be that leaders take significantly more care in their relationships with each other, since the possibility of extrajudicial action is increased due to the lower cost of conflict resolution through violent means. Another way of putting it would be that leaders are now forced to bear the full cost of the negative externalities generated by their actions.

1 comment:

  1. Anonymous9:00 AM

    I bet he kept it secret because (1) it ended up failing, and (2) because we sent American spec-ops into the sovereign nation of Pakistan in order to kill the terrorists who live there. Imagine Canada doing that to us, sending down the mounties to hunt down and kill drug dealers across the border. I think that's the issue here, not the mission of the program.