Assassination not ideal but often needed

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The Article

On October 28, 2001, the Washington Post ran a story with the following lead: “Armed with new authority from President Bush for a global campaign against al-Qaeda, the CIA is contemplating clandestine missions expressly aimed at killing specific individuals.”

Members of Congress obviously don’t read newspapers, since they now claim to be shocked by the recent revelation that, in the months following 9/11, the CIA considered a plan to capture and assassinate key al-Qaeda leaders.

In truth, the only plan more shocking is if the CIA didn’t consider killing a few terrorists at a time when the security of their country was under attack. Assassination can’t become a legitimate national defence policy, but after the largest attack on American soil since Pearl Harbor, it shouldn’t be surprising that such extraordinary measures were considered.

After all, it’s been done before.

In 1986, President Ronald Reagan ordered a missile attack on Libya, when its president, Moammar Gadhafi, was found responsible for the terrorist bombing of a West German nightclub that killed two American servicemen and injured 200 others. Reagan ordered the strike on both military targets and the president’s residence, and Gaddafi’s five-month-old daughter was killed.

In the wake of al-Qaeda attacks on the USS Cole and embassies in Africa, President Bill Clinton ordered missile strikes against terrorist targets in Afghanistan. The goal was to kill Osama bin Laden, but it failed. Clinton considered similar attacks on later occasions, but never again pulled the trigger. In the aftermath of 9/11, he was widely criticized for not acting on U. S. intelligence.

These events didn’t involve commandos in ninja suits. There were no bullets or covert spy missions—only long-range missiles and overt military action. But were the goals of these strikes any different than those purportedly considered by the CIA?

Who’s to say that assassinations of a few key terrorists wouldn’t have made a huge—and positive—difference in the post 9/11 world?

It might have been a simple solution to getting rid of Saddam Hussein or limiting al-Qaeda’s ability to carry on terrorist activities. As dead soldiers continue to come home from Afghanistan and Iraq, surely we can’t help but at least wonder if key assassinations might have shortened these wars (or rendered them unnecessary) and greatly diminished the number of deaths on both sides. We’re all horrified by the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, but most military historians agree that the bombs ultimately saved millions of lives.

We do know that assassinations have previously created chaos among terrorists. At the 1972 Olympic Games in Munich, 11 Israeli athletes were murdered by Black September, a PLO terrorist group. In a now well-known story (portrayed in the movies, Munich and The Sword of Gideon), the Israeli government consented to have covert Mossad agents track down and assassinate the terrorists involved. They succeeded in killing nine.

Just as the ultimate goal of the PLO was to create fear and instability in Israel, Mossad succeeded in generating fear, distrust and instability in the terrorist organization. Terrorists began to turn on one another as their leaders fell one by one to assassination. It really is the ultimate in the “eye for an eye, tooth for a tooth” book of revenge.

Despite our mulling about what could have been, the fact remains that the CIA’s plan was never implemented or carried out. That suggests that we do know something about the lengths some presidents will (Reagan, Clinton)—or won’t (Bush)—go to in carrying out their charge to protect the United States.

In the movie Munich, Israeli Prime Minister Golda Meir consents to the assassination plan with the words, “Every civilization finds it necessary to negotiate compromises with its own values.” It’s a Hollywood line and I hate to quote Steven Spielberg as a moral authority, but it captures the essence of the problem in choosing the convenience of assassination over the prolonged horrors of war.

Assassination is a compromise of our western and democratic value for the authority of law. Yet, as we have seen, sometimes compromise can accomplish a lot of good. If Bill Clinton had struck his target, 9-11 and the Iraq war may never have occurred. We might still be taking toothpaste onto airplanes.

Assassination can never become policy and it should never be an easy decision. But, if it ultimately saves lives, why can’t we consider it as an appropriate response to some situations?

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