In last month’s posting on “Thugs and Bullies” [70.4] I raised the question of whether, in instances in which there are tyrannical heads of state such as Mubarak and Gaddafi responsible for the loss of many innocent lives, it might be preferable just lop off those heads that to allow the continuance of bloody uprisings. “Targeted assassinations” of international thugs and bullies are really squishy moral ground. A lot depends, as Terry Malloy said in the moral turbulence of On the Waterfront, on where you are standing. Geographically, a lot depends on where you are standing as well, or the likes of Kissinger, Bush, Cheney and Rumsfeld might be in their graves or the dock in the Hague.
Most democratic governments profess to renounce targeted assassinations, but there was little if any denunciation of the extra-judicial whacking of Osama bin Laden a few days ago. Osama was a freelance terrorist and an embarrassment to governments that even quietly supported him; he was not a head of state (at least officially). He was also a piece of dirt.
But still, slipping into a sovereign state, a putative “ally” no less, and whacking a guy (who likely was being protected by that state), is a dangerous precedent, especially in an age when some assassin/martyrs” with notions of retaliation don’t even care about themselves getting out of their operations alive. It is a behavior—as this one was—of revenge-retaliation, that can lead into a repetitive game of ”gotcha last.” And limited “hits” are one thing (although even this “surgical” strike might have taken out some innocents or non-combatants as well), but it is only the tenuous workings of “mutually-assured destruction” that have worked so far to keep the ante from really getting upped. (If the Pakistani government wants to claim they didn’t know OBL was in their own back yard, how good are their claims that their nukes are under their control?).
The fact is that the argumentative claims of a moral superiority for this hit (at least to the morals of OBL) are backed by a military superiority. Thrasymachus remarked, “Justice is nothing more than the advantage of the stronger.” This is the kind of “justice” that gets a certain kind of people the thrill of hitting the streets with their flags flying and, cynically, fulfills a campaign promise with a bump in approval ratings.
Much has been made of the fact that Obama “took a big risk” in authorizing the mission to take out bin Laden. There was the risk of failure (one that would remind us of the Iran hostage and the Somalia failures), there was the risk of the SEAL force being killed or captured, but there was, and is, the risk of escalating covert operations and of retaliation on American citizens stationed and traveling all over the world. That decision had to be weighed against just how strategically important OBL had become, and how much strategic (as against symbolic) value there was in taking him out. This was a decision that made a lot of Americans, and others, feel good, but the price might be quite a bit higher and wider than having risked a American SEAL team. It could be a price we will only learn about in time. After all, revenge is a dish best served cold.”
As noted above, democratic nations states are supposed to eschew political assassination, but there is one sense in which it is salutary—decapitating “bad guys” and saving lives if they are left to continue their mayhem—and symbolically useful. There is a certain “efficiency” to this Hammurabic form of “justice.” Never mind that vat the same time we around proclaiming that America is a “nation of laws” but has endorsed torture, illegal detention and undeclared wars. These, of course, are precisely the arguments Osama bin Laden would have made had he been captured and placed on trial. Joyous as many might be that OBL “got what was coming to him” this will not be the end of it.
Nation states might promulgate that extra-judicial assassinations are neither desirable nor legal, but it is human personalities who respect or ignore those rules. We need no greater reminder of the tenuousness of those rules than Serbs and Bosnians committing atrocities over who raped whose grandmother 400 years ago, and Shiites and Sunnis blowing each other up over the succession of Mohammad 700 years ago. Bush all but made it personal between him and Osama, but true to his shorter memory just dropped the matter; Obama remembered his campaign pledge.
But one cannot help but be reminded of what I would call “the Corleone Corrolary” in these vengeful-justice, surgical hits. Remember when Don Vito Corleone took out the Barzini family and the capos of all the competing crime families in New York? Or, when (I know I am proceeding as though everyone should know the details of The Godfather the way they should know The Illiad, Hamlet or Moby Dick—well, you should!) Michael Corleone took out Captain McClusky and Solozzo and his beautiful young wife ended up paying for it.
Osama might “sleep with the fishes” but it is not happy situation when America has to “go to the mattresses.”*
© 2011 James A. Clapp (UrbisMedia Ltd. Pub. 5.8.2011)
*You really should check of The Godfather (Parts I and II). It’s like international relations, with marinara sauce.