Political assassination is as old as recorded history, which means it is probably much older. The first that we know about is when Cain offed his brother Abel to remove him from God’s favor, and thus putting civilization on an interesting course. We have lived somewhere to the East of Eden ever since.

Among warrior peoples–Celts, Germans, certain Africans, American Indians, etc.—there is a certain poetry to it, usually involving a generation gap and the necessity of getting rid of the old man. Among peoples who have adopted some form of the rule of law—Chinese, Hebrews, Greeks, Romans, Englishmen, etc.—there has developed a moral philosophy of regime change based upon murder, usually having to do with a leader who has betrayed the Tradition. Overwhelmingly, however, political assassination has happened within cultures, that is, Romans killing Romans and Americans killing Americans. It wasn’t a Brit, after all, who killed Ghandi.

The 20th century produced a twist on the phenomenon. The state began to target its enemies, within and without its jurisdiction, according to what some people have even called “rational choice analysis.”  Governments slaughtering their own people is not new, of course, and one could argue that a very important purpose of government is to slaughter its perceived enemies. But what we begin to see about the time of World War II is an increased amount of targeting important leaders in other governments in hopes of changing the course of history.

R.J. Rummel in Death by Government has documented about 169,198,000 murders by government up to 1993. The modern state is efficient at one thing, at least. He also spends quite a bit of time arguing that democracies do not go to war against each other, and do not kill as many of their own people as non-democracies. It’s interesting, however, that democracies are at least as good as totalitarians in targeting individuals for death, and that the United States is as enthusiastic as anybody, although not necessarily very successful.

Paul Johnson writes, “Early in 1943, the Americans determined to kill Admiral Yamamoto, master-spirit of the Japanese navy. They felt that the overwhelming moral superiority of their cause gave them the right to do so.” President Roosevelt gave personal permission for the deed to be done, and it was accomplished because we had broken the Japanese code and knew just where the admiral would be. Since then, in the context of one moral crusade after another, the United States has assassinated or attempted to assassinate or has caused to be assassinated scores of morally inferior enemies. I think that many Americans would have disapproved of targeting Admiral Yamamoto; it seems that almost no Americans disapprove of the kill mission against Osama Bin Ladin. Both men masterminded attacks on the United States that were “infamous” and that caused reactions too terrible for them to have fathomed, but ironically the reaction to the latter was much less terrible than to the former. We have done nothing to Saudis, who made up the bulk of OBL’s attack force, and we have done little to anybody in the middle east to compare with what happened to the Japanese. Some moral nuances have taken hold between 1943 and 2011:  It is less likely that we will nuke people who murder about 3000 Americans now than it was in the 1940s, but it is more likely that we will chant “USA, we’re number one” when we send a kill team against an individual.

Perhaps it’s The Dirty Dozen syndrome. This wildly popular movie came out (1967) at the height of the Vietnam buildup, starring a cast of bad boys (Lee Marvin, Charles Bronson, Ernest Borgnine, Telly Savalas, Jim Brown, and others) who endeared themselves to an adoring public for being condemned men who achieved a sort of moral community by slaughtering Nazi leaders at a French resort. Don’t get me wrong—I loved the movie, and still watch it every so often.  I’m as susceptible as most of my countrymen. But if we think hard about the moral implications of turning killers loose to kill even worse killers we should feel a little uncomfortable, shouldn’t we?

It’s no accident that state-sponsored assassination of other peoples’ leaders should be associated with World War II. The Great Patriotic War, as our Russian ally still calls it, was our version of the ancient Hebrews’ covenantal slaughter of God’s enemies. The Hebrews even found themselves forced to make a pact with Rome to rid themselves of their Greek enemy, which got them into more trouble than we did by compacting with commies to defeat nazis. World War II gave us, among many other things, the most powerful national states in the history of the world. The most ancient rule of government is, that once you’ve got it, it’s really hard to get rid of it.

Our own state got serious about playing hardball with foreign leaders after the Department of War was reorganized into “Defense” in 1947, and after the CIA was created to complement the FBI. Although we know quite a lot about CIA operations taking down potentially hostile governments in the 1950s, we still don’t have much reliable information about Ike’s willingness to send out dirty dozens. I talked with a Culligan water softener installation guy in the early 1970s who claimed to have been part of a team sent into Cambodia in 1957 to kill as many local communist leaders as they could (I don’t doubt his story; it was vivid with details), but nobody very far up the enemy food chain was involved.

It took the Kennedy imagination to put new technology together with a true commitment to liberal internationalism and a strange combination of idealism and amorality to put in place what FDR had only experimented with. The JFK team did the same thing on the domestic side (foreign policy always reflects domestic policy), attaching liberal dreams to hardball machine politics. The problem was, the Kennedys had the wrong guys killed in Vietnam and the Congo, and they botched their Castro hit jobs with a series of Keystone Kops episodes that would make even the dumbest Roman Emperors look smart. It takes semi-constitutional governments a long time to master the art of murdering enemies, although it is interesting to note that nobody has done it very well. We kill our own fairly efficiently, and although the IRA got Lord Mountbatten, even pseudo governments committed to murder don’t get their way very often out of their own countries or cultures.

The reason for this, I offer, not tongue-in-cheek, is the Judith Test. Judith, the beautiful widow of Manasseh, used her endowments to wile her way into the tent of Holofernes, the Assyrian commander who had been sent by King Nebuchadnezzar, the “lord of the whole earth,” to punish the people of God.  Faced with certain defeat, the Hebrews of Bethulia allowed a woman of incomparable faith to do their battle for them.  Judith cut off the head of Holofernes; “give me strength this day O Lord God of Israel;” and she got it in two whacks. Judith and her maid smuggled the bloody prize out of the Assyrian camp. Armed with such faith, and with the rhetorical skills of the best of the Prophets, Judith and Holofernes’ head gave the Hebrews the spine to run the Assyrian army away. “Woe to the nations that rise up against my people,” Judith sang. “The Lord Almighty will take vengeance on them in the day of judgment; fire and worms he will give to their flesh; they shall weep in pain forever.”

This was the murder of Yamamoto or Osama Bin Ladin writ large. Judith had no agenda except to do God’s will and save her people. Her courage came from faith. She was not a SEAL, nor an Israeli commando. Her act was so powerful that there is no mention of retaliation by greater forces.

Does our assassination of Osama Bin Ladin meet the Judith test?

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