Assassination: A Brief History

When we go to war, what happens when we make our enemies faceless?

AFP/Getty Images
AFP/Getty Images

Opponents couldn’t make political hay out of former U.S. Vice President Dick Cheney’s withholding (if he did) from congressional scrutiny secret CIA programs to assassinate high-ranking al Qaeda operatives, if people had no qualms about targeted killing. But they do. Governments can bomb faceless troops of enemy conscripts with impunity, but are questioned closely about bombing photographable individuals. Numbers numb; identity humanizes. That’s the general rule.

Countries put their weaponry for random killing on ceremonial display, but are evasive about their assets and capabilities for targeted killing. Some reticence makes sense — stealth is an operational requirement for such missions — but much of the evasiveness is due to moral reservations. The media will let an administration get away with a sweeping military operation against anonymous combatants, even when it endangers noncombatants, but will put governments in the hot seat over the assassination of a committed foe — say, a terrorist — even when there’s little risk of collateral damage.

Cheney didn’t invent targeted killing any more than Al Gore invented the Internet. Rulers have been known to send assassins after specific individuals since antiquity, though official taste for what the KGB used to call "wet business" varied. Citizens assumed that their governments engaged in clandestine violence — fictional figures like 007 with "a license to kill" were staple items in popular literature — but it wasn’t until the collapse of the Soviet empire in 1991 that some of its former member states acknowledged past participation in actions of this type.

Some allied democracies, notably Israel, have been known to practice extrajudicial measures such as cross-border abduction (Adolf Eichmann in 1960) and hostage-rescue (Entebbe in 1976). Following the massacre of 11 Israeli athletes at the 1972 Munich Olympics, the retaliatory killing of individuals designated as terrorists has also been commonly associated with Israel, though not formally acknowledged. Acknowledgment hardly mattered, though, after several Israeli agents were captured and tried for mistakenly killing an Arab waiter in Lillehammer, Norway, in 1973.

Things changed in the 1990s. Life started imitating fiction quite openly, and by the end of the 20th century the targeted assassination of prominent terrorists had become regular television fare. Hamas’s "spiritual" leader, Sheikh Ahmed Yassin, died on the evening news, but Israel was by no means the only state to counter terrorism in front of the cameras. Al Qaeda lieutenants in Afghanistan were blown up in prime time by U.S. Predator missiles (making the accusation that Cheney had kept targeted killings from Congress something of a joke). The hush-hush missions of James Bond were turning into public spectacles.

This candor was accompanied, or perhaps precipitated, by a shift in popular mood. When Israel’s Olympic athletes were murdered in 1972, the hooded terrorists of Black September were the bad guys. Even Yasir Arafat tried to distance himself from the Munich massacre. By 2000, however, matters were more equivocal. With an eye on the moral high ground, terrorists started claiming justification and legitimacy. Soon the media were describing hijackers and suicide-bombers as "militants" and "insurgents," equating blowing up shoppers and travelers with popular resistance. While security forces put targeted assassinations on CNN, video spots on Al Jazeera portrayed the beheadings of hostages and the apotheosis of suicide bombers. News clips of airliners slamming into the World Trade Center sent people dancing into the street throughout the Arab world. Mass murder was acquiring an air of respectability. The older generation’s wet business was becoming the younger generation’s wet dream. The new millennium was turning into the Terrorist Century.

Following the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, Western countries took a second look at counterterrorist procedures, including measures previously disdained, such as targeted assassination. Although they were now openly on the table, these measures continued to be hotly debated in Western intelligence communities. Some experts doubted not only their legality or morality, but their efficacy as well. They suggested that shooting or Predator-ing terrorists solved nothing. Extrajudicial measures exacerbated rather than reduced tensions, increased rather than decreased terrorist incidents.

Certainly, the Israeli counterterrorist actions following the Munich massacre didn’t put an end to terrorism. On the eve of 9/11, in addition to al Qaeda, Mideast terrorist groups included Hamas, Saiqa Baath, Palestinian Islamic Jihad, Fatah Intifada, the PNC (Palestine National Council led by Khalid al-Fahoum), the old PFLP (Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine), the PDFLP (Popular Democratic Front for the Liberation of Palestine), the PLF (Palestinian Liberation Front, led by Abu Abbas), and the pro-Arafat Palestinian Popular Struggle Front. These groups enjoyed Syrian support, while the Arab Liberation Front was based in Iraq. Nor was this a complete list; there were other groups supported by Arab and/or Muslim states from Libya to Iran.

But though Israeli-style counterterrorism didn’t solve the terrorist dilemma, methods employed by more squeamish democracies failed just as decisively. The criminal justice system tamed terrorists no more than hit teams, and neither did concessions or appeasement. Halfhearted substitutes for doing nothing — such as the United States’ air raid on Libya in 1986 or two cruise missile attacks on Afghanistan and Sudan in 1998 — far from eliminating terrorism, only heralded 9/11’s smoldering ruins in lower Manhattan.

In fighting terrorism, looking for a "solution" is the wrong test. The utility of counterterrorism isn’t decided on the basis of what it solves or fails to solve. The police, the courts, and the jails are no "solution" to crime; schools, libraries, and universities are no "solution" to ignorance; yet no one concludes that the justice system or the education system has no utility. Shooting Osama bin Laden probably wouldn’t eliminate terrorism, but it would eliminate Osama bin Laden. Certain battles need to be fought every day, not necessarily to make the world a better place, but to prevent it from becoming worse.

Fighting terrorism takes many forms, including economic sanctions (or aid) and state-to-state military action. Counterterrorist measures are neither the only nor the most important ones. But confusing cops with robbers because they both carry guns is sophomoric. Crashing planeloads of civilians into an office building is wrong in a way shooting known terrorists isn’t. Ultimately, both the morality and usefulness of resisting evil are contained in the uselessness and immorality of not resisting it.

There’s an additional argument. Our high-tech times enable, perhaps even oblige us, to engage in "bloodless" warfare. The astronomical casualty figures of 20th-century conflicts aren’t sustainable in the 21st, morally or politically. Body counts such as 40 million in World War II, 1 million in Vietnam — even 50,000 in the Six Day War — are no longer acceptable. Our improved ability to isolate key enemies enables us to wage war with far fewer casualties. For the first time in history, we can fight regimes instead of people. Rather than looking at populations of belligerent countries as "Huns" or "Nips" to be defeated, we can look at them as hostages to be liberated.

In the era of "smart bombs," the United States no longer has to contemplate 4 million dead and wounded as it did in Korea during the 1950s (2 million military, plus about 2 million civilian casualties in North and South combined, not counting about 390,000 Chinese and 37,500 U.S. soldiers). Today, there is a good chance of eliminating mad tyrants like Kim Jong Il and his inner circle, or their nuclear facilities, with a few GPS-guided bunker busters. It cost three years and millions of lives to fight the elder Kim to a standstill 56 years ago; these days his son’s swamp can be sanitized at the cost of a few hundred lives in three weeks.

Or so the argument goes.

I don’t disagree, though I’m concerned that we’re getting a little carried away. What limits the attractive idea of fighting regimes, not people, is that not everybody in the world loves democracy. Sometimes majorities (or sizable minorities) in belligerent countries follow their barbaric leaders rather than being their captives. Surgical strikes won’t always do the trick.

An unintended consequence of the "regime-not-people" doctrine is that it puts a premium on asymmetric warfare, the very kind of military contest in which low-tech enemies come close to matching us. They may lack GPS-guided bunker busters, but they have enough fifth columnists to poison the air-conditioning system in every government office from the Pentagon to the White House. Having more ships and planes may not matter when the enemy is already in New Jersey.

Last but not least, if elevated to a dogma, the new "bloodless" doctrine would measure military campaigns by the standards of a low-casualty ideal — not just in terms of our own losses, but in terms of the enemy’s. In this kind of war game, the more you kill of the foe, the lower you score. In addition to discouraging the pursuit of sound military objectives, such a criterion makes us just as vulnerable politically in victory as in defeat.

The first decade of the new millennium has put targeted killing in the state’s medicine cabinet. That’s fine. We should remember to keep it, like all medicine, in a cool place and out of the reach of children.

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