The word slithered out on the mahogany table like a poisonous snake: "Assassination!" I was irritated at the person who brought it up--fortunately he was not one of the high-ranking government officials present at the meeting a few years ago, in the wake of yet another terrorist outrage. Americans had been killed. We were supposed to be having a cool discussion of policy, yet there was anger in the room when we spoke about the terrorists. And we were frustrated at the paucity of options to combat them.
But assassination in my view is a dumb idea. And it was dumber still to bring it up in that meeting. For government officials even to discuss assassination risks impropriety. Several in the room looked pained. Throats cleared; chairs scraped the floor; 200 years of American history stared down at us from portraits on the walls. After an awkward silence, one of the officials spoke. Assassination was wrong, he said. Whatever we do to combat terrorism, American values must be preserved.
Thomas Jefferson would have been proud. Walter Cronkite and Jimmy Stewart would have been proud. I was proud. There is right and wrong, and there is good and evil, this man reminded us, and we were the good guys. In the darkest moment of despair, I never feared that terrorists would triumph. In the long run, they fail. But should we always remain the good guys?
Since that meeting, terrorists have inflicted more outrages. Indiscriminate attacks have grown more common. As terrorism has become bloodier, assassination is back on the table. The United States must reconsider its prohibition against assassination, asserted one terrorist expert in a TV interview. "We should have killed the ayatollah," said another, adding that Libya's Moammar Kadafi should have been killed long ago.
These exhortations strike a resonant chord with the American public. In a public-opinion poll conducted just before the U.S. raid on Libya, 61% agreed the United States should "covertly assassinate known terrorist leaders."
Assassination has an emotional appeal when people are frightened, frustrated, angry. Terrorist attacks have worn down our patience with so-called experts who constantly remind us that combatting terrorism is a difficult and enduring task, that we may have to live with it a while longer. How much more satisfying it is to hear that we have only to take off the gloves and get down to bare knuckles.
Here are arguments in favor of assassination as a means of combatting terrorism, followed by arguments against it:
1) Assassination may preclude greater evil. "Wouldn't you have assassinated Adolf Hitler?" proponents often ask. With hindsight, it's easy to say, "Yes, of course." More difficult is, when? After 1941, when Germany declared war on the United States? After 1939, when World War II began? If before, based on what criteria? Because he was a fascist, a ruthless megalomaniac, a rabid racist who persecuted Jews, annexed Austria, invaded Czechoslovakia? All true. But how do we identify future Hitlers? Regrettably, his attributes are not so unusual among world leaders.
2) Assassination produces fewer casualties than retaliation with conventional weapons. Thousands have died as a result of conventional military operations. If blood is the measure, assassination is surely the cleanest form of warfare.
3) Assassination of terrorist leaders would disrupt terrorist groups more than any other form of attack. This is probably the best argument. The death of Wadi Haddad from natural causes resulted in a suspension of his group's operations. The elimination of Abu Nidal would no doubt impair that group's ability to operate. In short, the elimination of a group's leader causes confusion and disarray.
4) Assassination leaves no prisoners to become causes for further terrorist attacks. After publicity, release of imprisoned terrorists is the terrorists' most important objective. In Paris this year, terrorist bombs have killed 10 and injured scores of persons, all because the French government refuses to release Georges Ibraham Abdallah, a terrorist leader charged with complicity in the assassination of an American and an Israeli diplomat. Perhaps many lives would have been spared if Abdallah and others had been killed.
Against assassination are moral and legal constraints, operational difficulties and practical considerations:
1) Assassination is morally wrong. Not since the Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini during the hostage crisis in Iran--perhaps not since Hitler--has any single leader aroused more personal animosity than has Kadafi. But can you imagine the President of the United States appearing on television to announce, "Some time ago I authorized the assassination of Moammar Kadafi. I am pleased to report that American agents have successfully carried out this mission."