Jewish World Review May 5, 2011 1 Iyar, 5771
Rules for Killing Rogues
By Victor Davis Hanson
The welcome end of
Americans rejoiced at news of the end of this psychopathic mass murderer, and, privately, are probably relieved that he was not to be captured and extradited to Guantanamo. If bin Laden had been taken alive, we might be revisiting the controversy surrounding the Obama administration's failed efforts to try in a civilian federal court bin Laden's subordinate,
But what, exactly, are the moral, legal or practical rules in going after terrorist leaders or the savage dictators of rogue regimes? We went into a foreign country to kill, not capture, bin Laden. Was that killing permissible since a firefight preceded it, or because he was a terrorist rather than a head of state?
Furor surrounded the waterboarding of Mohammed that purportedly resulted in valuable intelligence about future terrorist operations. But why was that considered immoral and illegal when we routinely act as judge, jury and executioner of suspected terrorists through predator drone attacks inside
Mohammed, a confessed killer, was one of just three detainees waterboarded. In contrast, we have executed from the air well over 1,500 suspected terrorists by Predators. President Obama has ordered four times as many drone attacks in the last two years as former
Could we then legally, morally or practically drop a team in Tripoli to kill Gadhafi and his son in the manner that we killed bin Laden and his son? What are the rules that govern the killing of enemy leaders?
First, it seems OK to assassinate a terrorist kingpin either by air attack or commando raid. But legal and moral problems arise if he is captured, detained, waterboarded or tried in a military tribunal. A quick death seems to end almost all legal discussions and controversies.
Second, there is also no problem in assassinating a foreign dictator as long as the mission meets two criteria: We must be engaged in some sort of conventional battle with his forces, and we have to kill him through aerial bombing. For some reason, vaporization by a bomb seems to raise fewer ethical issues than execution by a sniper's bullet.
Third, targeted assassinations are better done under liberal presidents, who are more likely to be seen as humanitarians who only reluctantly order such killings. The Bush antiterrorism protocols -- tribunals, renditions, preventative detentions, Predator assassination missions,
Fourth, success seems to end moral ambiguity in much the same way failure invites it. Had we gone into Pakistani territory and landed in the wrong compound, legal and ethical issues would have been raised. If we keep killing members of the Gadhafi family without hitting Gadhafi himself, at some point the denial of targeted assassination will seem empty. Targeted assassinations apparently have to work on the first or second attempt to be deemed moral and legal.
In recent years
It is about time that we clarified the rules that determine their fates.
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Victor Davis Hanson, a classicist and military historian, is a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution and a recipient of the 2007 National Humanities Medal. Comment by clicking here.
© 2011, TMS