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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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5 replies to this post
  1. "…ironically the reaction to [Yamamoto] was much less terrible than to [Bin Laden]."

    Perhaps. We haven't dropped any nukes or engaged in total war tactics. But the invasion/occupation of Iraq has killed at least 100,000 people, perhaps more than half a million. Afghanistan is unclear, but the answer is surely "a lot." And while relative/eventual stability and peace came after the Second World War, it's difficult to imagine Iraq and Afghanistan looking like Germany and Japan a half-century or so from now.

    "We have done nothing to Saudis, who made up the bulk of OBL’s attack force…"

    Well, yeah, but it's not at all clear that the Saudi government had anything to do with it. I think you're engaging in a slightly distressing kind of nationalistic reductionism. Much to the chagrin of some fellow Tucsonans, we can't invade Mexico because some of their nationals commit crimes here.

    We did, however, topple the regime that sheltered Bin Laden (the first one, that is… don't think we'll be toppling Pakistan), and invaded Iraq partly on the logic that Hussein was tenuously… okay, strike that… not-really connected to Al-Qaeda.

    As to your final question: well, no. But then America ain't the Hebrew nation of Israel, and it seems a little odd to advocate America-first isolationism while at the same time applying a Hebraic, chosen-people litmus test to American foreign policy.

  2. Mark,

    Your last point is both apt and interesting. I shall return to it shortly.

    WWII, as most people don't realize, was a war waged by ideologues, including on our side. Total war is waged only by ideologues. I am thankful that neither Mr. Clinton nor Mr. Bush were such ideologues as to wipe out the entire Balkans or the entire middle east, although they did considerable damage.

    Must we have a smoking gun to show that the Saudis and the Pakistanis have been complicit in this mess? Is it a "slightly distressing kind of nationalistic reductionism" to suggest that Mexico might be having its way with us? That said, I don't think that we need to invade Mexico any more than we needed to invade Iraq, although maybe we shouldn't rule that out, either.

    Which brings me back to my "America-first isolationism." If the USA insists on killing morally inferior enemies and wrapping ourselves in flags and chanting triumphant slogans, then we had better have a "Hebraic, chosen-people litmus test" to justify it, don't you think? Our President says, "Justice was done." I find his notion of justice to be slightly cloudy. You have asked exactly the right question. If we "ain't" the Hebrews, let's not act like them, and strut around like the cock of the walk. And, since you and I have contended before, you must know that "isolationism" is another ideology to which I don't subscribe. Prudence, on the other hand…

  3. Very well put. Painting you as an ideologue is surely unfair and not my intention. I would surely take umbrage if you labeled me an interventionist because I find our involvement in World War II and our Russian alliance (though surely not all of our particular actions) justified. We might disagree on what prudence looked like in the late 30s and early 40s, though.

    That said, I'm not sure the immorality of Bin Laden and Yamamoto was the driving force behind their killings.

    Yes, revenge–an inherently godlike (rather than godly) act–probably motivated the decision to kill both Yamamoto and Bin Laden. Moreover, our elected leaders, bureaucrats, and our public are using the immorality of Bind Laden as post-facto justification for their killing, just as the Iraq invasion was retrospectively justified because Hussein was a murderous thug. You make a good point.

    But I think that killing Bin Laden and Yamamoto (though not, as we learned, the decision to invade Iraq) can be justified aside from their personal morality. It's enough that they murdered thousands of Americans, declared war on us, didn't change their minds, and continued to wage their war in their respective ways. Their evil, in this case, can be an incidental side-note to the reason why we killed them, more a matter of after-the-fact, aside-from-the-point justification than driving force.

    It is realistic and reasonable to demand that our leaders and military not go around killing people we've deemed morally inferior. I, for one, prefer Obama's Nobel Peace Prize acceptance speech to Bush's neo-Wilsonian international democracy.

    But when we do kill people who wage war against us, I'm not sure it's realistic to expect said leaders not to make much of the deceased's wickedness. I think we'll agree that this or any subsequent administration is not likely to dwell on the humanity of Bin Laden: "We killed this husband, father, and mentor because he was a threat to the United States. Period."

    I think that public thinkers/writers/intellectuals–and in this case we are speaking less as historians (me as historian-in-training, I should say) than as public figures of a sort–ought to temper and relativize such gloating. I'd rather we didn't demonize even Hitler, and I think historians ought to be held responsible to portray the humanity of their subjects, not matter who they might be.

    I don't know if we should hold our representative leaders to similar standards. Post-facto moralizing is unavoidable. It's why standard action movies have the bad guy mistreat his dog… the hero doesn't kill him for that petty cruelty, but it sure makes everyone feel better about his dying. And, frankly, I don't really mind that, so long as that's ultimately aside-from-the-point.

  4. -I do think revenge was a primary motivation for the wild celebrations in the streets. But I also think a sense of closure and relief, however irrational, had much to do with it. The majority of the celebrating mobs were probably between the ages of 8 and 18 in 2001. For those of us who are now between, say, 18 and 28, 9/11 was *the* collective moment of our childhood or youth. And I think almost everyone of whatever age in the US agrees its been a sour decade since then, even if we don't agree on why. So I suspect the euphoria, which shocked me, had more than revenge behind it.

    -Pakistan and the Saudis: A smoking gun? Perhaps not. But they are both denying responsibility, and I hope we've learned since 2003 that justified suspicions aren't the same as evidence. And even though it seems highly likely that people in the Pakistani government were aware of Bin Laden's presence and it's quite possible that some in the Saudi government knew of his plans in 2001, it's not at all clear that the states as a whole (and, it need go without saying, their populations) can be held responsible. I'm guessing we probably agree: military action is not justified against these states based on what we (you and I, I mean) know… but we certainly might question the prudence of forking over billions of dollars to places that seem to breed our enemies.

  5. Ah, Mark, good.

    I said last night to a small family gathering that I, if faced with the same circumstances, would probably have made the decision that Mr. Obama made. I hope I wouldn't have so pompous and self-serving about it, particularly since he doesn't seem to have a frame of reference for his concept of justice. It's certainly not either Socratic or Christian, much less Hebraic. I would almost rather have him be Kennedy-like: We shot the son-of-a-bitch, and would do it again.

    And if we are going to be so realistic/pragmatic about how the world works, we also must be very unsentimental about Pakistan and the Saudi allies.

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