The State Makes an Omelet

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On a Saturday in the ski-resort town of Lillehammer, Norway a young waiter and his wife — she was pregnant with their first child — came out of a movie theater a little before 11 pm and caught a bus to a stop near their apartment. As the couple walked from the stop to their building two gunmen emerged from a car and methodically gunned down the man, then drove off while the dead man’s wife cried for help.

These events took place on July 21, 1973. Norway doesn’t have many drive-by shootings, and this wasn’t one. The whole thing was so carefully planned it might look like a terrorist operation, but it wasn’t. The murder of the innocent waiter, Ahmed Bouchikhi, was part of a counter-terrorist operation. The Mossad, Israel’s intelligence agency, had shot Bouchikhi dead in the mistaken belief that he was Ali Hassan Salameh, the mastermind behind the murder of eleven Israeli athletes during the 1972 Olympic games.

The Norwegian police caught six of the Israeli operatives involved in Bouchikhi’s assassination. One was subsequently acquitted. A Norwegian court sentenced the other five to prison terms of between two and six years. None of those five served more than twenty-two months — they received executive pardons. The Mossad agent who had masterminded the operation, Michael Harari, was never caught. Charging the elusive Harari proved difficult, and Norwegian prosecutors waited until 1998 to issue an international warrant for his arrest, only to withdraw it the following year. As the US State Department reports, "[Norwegian] State Attorney Lasse Quigstad said that the case was dismissed due to lack of evidence."

On January 22, 1979 the Mossad used a car bomb to kill the real Ali Hassan Salameh in Beirut. As for the pregnant woman whose husband the Mossad had mistakenly murdered six years earlier, the Israeli government finally decided in 1996 to pay her an undisclosed sum as compensation, but refused to admit formal responsibility for the crime. The British newspaper the Guardian quoted the widow, Torill Larsen Bouchikhi: "No one pays out compensation unless they are guilty."

Some readers may sympathize with Mr. Bouchikhi and his widow right away, but there’s a good reason why others might not. People die accidentally all the time, after all, and any system of justice will occasionally make mistakes. You can’t make an omelet without breaking a few eggs — that might sound callous, but it’s true. On top of which, most Americans are unlikely ever to be in Ahmed Bouchikhi’s shoes, simply because we are not likely to be mistaken for Arabs of any kind. It’s easy to believe that what happened to Bouchikhi could never happen to us (though Arab and Arab-American readers have good reason to think otherwise).

But try considering the Lillehammer incident in the context of the rule of law. Bouchikhi didn’t get a trial before he was executed — nor for that matter did Salameh, whatever the certainty of his guilt. Bouchikhi’s assassins served less than two years in prison before being pardoned. Finally the Israeli state, which was ultimately behind the killing, paid compensation but refused to take moral responsibility. From start to finish, the Israeli state acted in a lawless fashion, dispensing death to innocent and deserving alike, without ever taking responsibility or facing up to the consequences.

We Americans heard a great deal about the "rule of law" in the late 1990′s, as Republicans complained, rightly, of abuses carried out by Janet Reno and Bill Clinton. When liberals scoffed that all Clinton had done was lie about sex, conservatives responded by arguing that he had broken the law and not only that, but by doing so had interfered with a civil lawsuit and denied justice to Paula Jones. All of the players in this drama may have been buffoons, but the issues at stake were serious, and none more serious than the rule of law.

There is a case to be made that Israel acted responsibly in its campaign to assassinate Salameh and his Black September colleagues. Indeed, the Israeli approach certainly obtained better results and cost fewer innocent lives than such US anti-terrorist actions as the bombing of Afghanistan. Nevertheless, anyone might recoil at the idea that an innocent man may be gunned down, in front of his wife, in one of the least violent countries of the world, seemingly at random, all as part of a "war on terror." Because when events like that start to happen, clearly Al Qaeda and Black September are not the only institutions propagating terror. If terror is something that can strike anywhere, killing anyone, then the Israeli operation, however pure its intentions, was terror.

Those who spoke and wrote so much about the rule of law during the Clinton era should ask themselves hard questions about whether Clinton himself was the sole culprit, or whether unconstitutional and lawless behavior is more generally a characteristic of the kind of government we have today, and if the latter, whether having a Republican sitting in the White House really fixes things. If the rule of law goes out the window in this country, what’s to stop a fate like the one suffered by Ahmad Bouchikhi from befalling any of us, regardless of race? Israel suffered few direct consequences as a result of its actions; what consequences could deter our own government from committing similar crimes? The only real check on such government abuses is a citizenry committed to protecting its own liberties, and defending the rule of law in the face of arbitrary power. Few citizens are willing to make that commitment, but perhaps contemplating Ahmed Bouchikhi’s murder will make us all a bit more circumspect about a "war" on terror. Especially when terror, as Bouchikhi and his family discovered, is something that can come from "anti-terrorists" as surely as from "terrorists."

*Except where otherwise specified my sources are CBS News, SpecialOperations.com, and Globalsecurity.org.

Daniel McCarthy [send him mail] is a graduate student in classics at Washington University in St. Louis.

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