Shortly after the attack on the World Trade Center, a guest on the Fox New Channel was asked if, given the desire to strike back, it might be time to reconsider the U.S. policy against assassination. No, he said, because that would mean descending to the terrorists' level.
The remark was puzzling, because the terrorists had not shot our president; they had killed thousands of innocent civilians. Descending to their level would mean responding in kind by, say, dropping a nuclear bomb on Afghanistan (as some of my more bellicose readers have urged).
Compared to such indiscriminate violence, killing Osama bin Laden--wanted "dead or alive" by President Bush--would be a measured response. Indeed, several commentators have argued that it would not even qualify as an assassination.
"If a country's been attacked and it kills the leader of a force that attacked that country," Hoover Institution scholar Abraham Sofaer told the Fox News Channel's John Gibson, "that is a lawful killing. Assassination means murder."
Assassination is not defined in the executive orders that ban it. The most recent one, issued by President Reagan in 1981, simply says, "No person employed by or acting on behalf of the United States Government shall engage in, or conspire to engage in, assassination."
Like Sofaer, former U.S. Attorney General Richard Thornburgh argues that the ban does not prohibit killing the terrorists responsible for the attacks of September 11. "In a war, there's no such thing as assassination," he said on Fox's Hannity & Colmes. "No one would ever argue that we assassinated any of the officers of Saddam Hussein's army in the Gulf War."
Yet Hussein himself still reigns in Baghdad, and a few years ago then-Sen. Charles Robb (D-Va.) drew criticism for suggesting that the U.S. government should not rule out the possibility of knocking him off. "He ought not to be able to sleep comforted by the fact that a law in the United States specifically prevents targeting him," Robb said.
Lawrence Korb, an assistant secretary of defense in the Reagan administration, told The Washington Post that lifting the ban on assassinations so Hussein could be killed would "bring us down to his level" and violate "international norms." Former CIA Director R. James Woolsey said it would be "destructive of much of what we try to stand for in the world."
Civilized governments, in other words, do not stoop to kill a foreign head of state, no matter how tyrannical or murderous he is. Instead, they punish his unfortunate subjects with bombs and embargoes.
The American distaste for assassination grew out of revelations about CIA attempts to kill political figures such as Fidel Castro and African nationalist Patrice Lumumba. In 1975 a Senate committee headed by Idaho Democrat Frank Church published a 347-page report on "Alleged Assassination Plots Involving Foreign Leaders." The following year, President Ford issued the first executive order banning assassinations.
It may be unsettling to know that American intelligence operatives are plotting the deaths of foreigners perceived as threats to U.S. security (especially if they do the job incompetently or without adequate oversight). But surely targeted killings are preferable to the use of massive force, which is likely to kill the innocent along with the guilty.
President Bush could openly permit the killing of terrorists by issuing a new executive order. For now, the administration's position seems to be that the assassination ban does not apply because we are responding to foreign aggression. Yet the targets of Bush's "war on terrorism" include people who may attack us in the future but have not done so yet.
"I think that we shouldn't be in the business of assassinating foreign heads of state," says former House Speaker Newt Gingrich. "On the other hand, I think that we should be in the business of preemptively eliminating people who we have profound reason to believe are threatening to kill Americans."
And if those people happen to be heads of state? It's hard to understand this solicitude for thugs who are so thuggish that they've managed to dominate an entire country. If Osama bin Laden somehow took control of Afghanistan, would he suddenly be off-limits?
Instead of insisting on distinctions that seem to have no moral basis, perhaps we should talk about the circumstances in which self-defense justifies killing people in cold blood. That's the real issue, whether we choose to call it assassination or not.