State-Sponsored Assassinations: A Time to KILL

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assassinations are back in season. Targeted snuff jobs of state
enemies are on the rise from Dubai to Dagestan, from Yemen to Waziristan.
Even the United States returned to the practice this week when US
president Barack Obama ordered the assassination of a US citizen,
Anwar al-Awlaki,the radical Imam who after 9/11 moved from Virginia
to Yemen, from where he now inspires such people as the Fort Hood
shooter and the would-be underwear bomber. He was pushing the limits
of President Gerald Ford’s 1976 executive ban against assassinations.

When one factors
in the vast human cost of cruder alternatives, assassination seems
like a logical option for dealing with foreign foes. Instead of
invading Iraq at the cost of hundreds of thousands of lives, for
example, would not a deft poisoning of Saddam Hussein – a "liquid
murder" – have been morally justified? Who has ever called
the would-be assassins of Hitler and Himmler anything but heroes?

Advances in
lethal technology are making assassinations exponentially easier
against even the most hardened security systems. Drones, aerosolisation
devices, synthetic opiates, new biological agents and radiological
weapons can be developed without fear of attribution.

But here’s
the rub: While it may be morally justified and legal under the laws
of war, political assassination carries with it practical policy
issues, not least the law of unintended consequences. One must bear
in mind that what is sauce for the dictatorial goose can equally
be sauce for the democratically elected gander. Further, the old
notion, paraphrasing Thucydides, the strong can get away with murder
while the weak must bear it, is increasingly unsupportable in today’s
high-tech world.

The Israelis
have never voiced any moral doubts about targeted assassinations,
but there was a concern that the latest killing might go down on
a list of plots that have misfired in unforeseen wayes. In 1997,
for instance, Mossad agents tried to eliminate Khaled Meshal, a
senior Hamas official, in Jordan. Two agents posing as Canadians
were caught trying to poison him and Israel, under threat that its
agents would be executed, agreed to send an antidote. In 1973 Israeli
agents murdered a Moroccan waiter in Lillehammer in Norway, mistaking
him for the leader of Black September,the group behind a massacre
of Israeli athletes at the Munich Olympics.

These bungles
contrast with operations that Israeli spooks recall with defiant
pride: the killing of Imad Mughniyeh,a top member of Hizbullah,
in Damascus in 2008 (a coup since Syria is hostile territory for
Israel); and the dispatch of Abu Jihad, a senior Palestinian official
and founder of the Fatah movement, by a squad that swooped into
Tunis in 1988.

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19, 2010

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