It has been argued that those who would consider the assassination of Julian Assange, because he has effectively become an “enemy combatant,” are uncivilized. But this is to confuse civilization with what is fey, hypocritical, morally obtuse and intellectually incoherent.
Let me try to make my position plain. Were I in government myself, in a position of responsibility for the lives of my country’s soldiers and citizens, and dealing with a threat to everything that protects them, I would not restrict my options. We are dealing with questions of life and death, in which killing is already on the table.
The question here is as old as the hills, though unfortunately, people with little knowledge of history cannot appreciate it. Every civilization has had the problem of frontiers: of the murky places where civilization ends and barbarism begins. By definition, this in not a place where the rule of law prevails. It is instead a place where the civilization itself is under attack, and must choose to defend itself, or be defeated.
In the past, people simply did not know—were not told—what goes on there. And this made some sort of sense: for no one is in a position to judge such things, from a position of safety.
To some degree, U.S. President Barack Obama himself grasps the reality, when he signs orders for the assassination by drone of specific al-Qaeda and Taliban leaders. Unfortunately, by his attempts to close Guantanamo, he has restricted his own options to “take no prisoners.” For trying to arrest armed men on a battlefield, read them their Miranda rights, then put them on trial before civilian judges, makes a farce. It actually undermines the rule of law; while providing a protected forum for the enemy.
Of course, in the case of WikiLeaks and Julian Assange, we are not dealing with armed terrorists. We are dealing with people trying to undermine our defences by other means. That they are “idealists” of some sort, can almost go without saying. Self-justification is a powerful thing, at the root of human nature; and the worse the behaviour, the more shining the ideals that will be claimed. Conversely, honest people do not try to sanctify themselves.
Assange himself is an interesting person, to those who study the psychology of “transgression.” Even without delving into his past—his upsetting family history, his background as a computer hacker, allegations of rape against him—it is obvious from his own statements that we are dealing with a “difficult case.” He is a man who refuses to acknowledge limits upon his own actions. The jails in every civilized country are full of such people.
But whether he fully understands what he is doing—as I’m sure he does not—he is advancing the cause of the enemy in quite direct ways. The question of whether WikiLeaks revelations endanger the lives of specific persons in the field (and of course they do), only scratches the surface. For the issue here is not the arithmetical one of body count, by which media are too easily distracted. The sabotage goes much deeper, and the possible consequences are on a scale vastly beyond a few bodies here and there.
Assange and colleagues are doing something that undermines the functional integrity of the whole western security apparatus. And whether we sneer at this or not, our very survival depends upon that “security apparatus.”
The issue here is a war effort, against a barbaric enemy, whose unambiguous intention is to destroy western civilization. The world being an imperfect place, our own side must resort to such stratagems as gathering intelligence about this enemy and creating opportunities for surprise. Allied diplomats require secrecy, to preserve candour among themselves; allied operations in the field require it. To put our operations under the glare of publicity, while they remain in progress, is to sabotage them.
The true history is important to establish, for the benefit of later generations, but it must be established after the fact. And it will never, anyway, be established by persons whose intentions are malign.
Half-knowingly—I am making allowance for his psychological state—Assange has stepped into the field of conflict. By doing things of direct benefit to the other side, he has forfeited his right to our side’s protection.
The question of whether he should be assassinated is thus a serious one. On balance, I would oppose the idea, because the uproar that would follow might further advance enemy interests. For more complex reasons, I also think targeted assassinations are a dangerous, potentially self-defeating tactic, that require great caution. Better to find more subtle ways to put Assange and WikiLeaks out of action. But one way or another, they must be put out of action.
Hard calls. And the stakes are too high for pseudo-moral posturing.