Amid the jubilation surrounding Osama bin Laden’s death on Monday, which followed closely on the heels of an apparent attempt to take out Col. Muammar el-Qaddafi in an air strike, it’s difficult to remember a time when “assassination” was a dirty word in this country. But it was, and not so long ago. Before the practice becomes a bad habit, we might want to heed the counsel of the past.
The peak of outrage against government-sponsored assassination was the mid-1970s, when the Senate Select Committee to Study Governmental Operations — better known as the Church committee — spent more than 60 days questioning 75 witnesses about C.I.A. plots of the late 1950s and early 1960s. Back in the darkest days of the cold war, the agency had devoted significant resources and creativity to devising unhappy ends for unsavory or inconvenient foreign leaders. Among those listed for assassination were Patrice Lumumba of the Congo, Ngo Dinh Diem of South Vietnam, Rafael Trujillo of the Dominican Republic and, most famously, Fidel Castro of Cuba, who survived no fewer than eight C.I.A. assassination plots. The senators on the committee were intent on divining the full extent of the government’s role in these plots. How much direct authority, for example, did Presidents Dwight Eisenhower and John Kennedy exert over them? The committee’s conclusions were vague at best. The truth was that neither president would have allowed his hand to show in such affairs.
Times have changed. Our president now interrupts regularly scheduled broadcasting to announce the news of an assassination himself.
Clearly, the circumstances surrounding assassinations have evolved over the last 50 years. For one thing, the targets are a sketchier crowd. Bin Laden was a terrorist, not a national leader, and a man so reviled in the West as to make Mr. Castro look cuddly by comparison.
The method of killing has changed greatly, too. Today’s attacks with laser-guided missiles and Navy Seal commando teams are straight out of a video game. The plots half a century ago were the stuff of B-movies and Saturday morning cartoons. In one of these, the C.I.A. employed the Mafia to arrange a mob hit on Mr. Castro shortly before the Bay of Pigs invasion of April 1961. The Mafia turned out not to be a very reliable partner and the hit never materialized, but the C.I.A. was undeterred. The agency later tried to deliver to Mr. Castro a scuba-diving suit laced with poison. Another plot involved getting Mr. Castro to smoke a toxic cigar.
At the C.I.A., where many top officials were highly cultivated products of elite boarding schools and Ivy League colleges, assassination may have been in vogue at the time, but it was not a subject for polite discussion. When one C.I.A. official turned in a memo urging the “elimination” not just of Fidel Castro, but of Raul Castro and Che Guevara, too — a sort of assassination triple play — Allen Dulles, the agency’s director, did not balk. But he did cross out “elimination” and pencil in a softer word: “removal.”
Such squeamishness seems almost quaint by today’s standards. “Targeted killing” is the latest euphemism for assassination. Employed with some regularity since the 1980s, targeted killing has been an especially valued tool of the C.I.A. and Pentagon since 9/11. Several executive orders prohibiting government-sponsored assassination were issued in the aftermath of the Church committee, including one signed by Ronald Reagan in 1981. Reagan himself challenged the order in 1986, when he approved an air attack on Libya — and the implicit attempt on the life of Colonel Qaddafi — as retribution for the bombing of a Berlin discotheque.
Some United States officials and legal scholars draw a firm distinction between assassinations, which are considered a form of murder, and targeted killings, which are undertaken during war and presumably in self-defense. The problem is that in the war on terrorism — a perpetual war with no foreseeable end — that line is bound to be murky at times. In any case, a spade, no matter what we call it, is still a spade.
Osama bin Laden clearly presents a special case both morally and practically. There is no conceivable argument against assassination that could stand up to the overwhelming desire in this country to see the man die. But the apparent attack on Colonel Qaddafi two days previously is more troubling.
American and NATO officials have denied going after Colonel Qaddafi, but that seems disingenuous. Given the sophistication of American intelligence and equipment, it is unlikely the bomb just happened to hit a house where Colonel Qaddafi was staying. Clearly, the air strike missed the Libyan leader only by chance (while killing one of his sons and three of his grandchildren). Colonel Qaddafi poses no direct threat to the United States, or at least did not until NATO forces went into Libya in March. It is hard to understand how poisoning Mr. Castro with a cigar was wrong if blowing up Colonel Qaddafi with a smart bomb is right.
However Americans feel about assassination, we should define exactly what our policy is going forward. We might consider some of the findings of the Church committee in 1975, starting with the committee’s statement that assassination, with rare exceptions, “violates moral precepts fundamental to our way of life.”
Even if we put aside morality, let us weigh the committee’s assessment that assassination presents practical risks. There is always the possibility, for instance, that the death of one leader may result in the rise of a leader even less to our liking, or to a state of chaos or vengeance more dangerous than the problem the killing was meant to solve. And always the danger, too, that the assassination bug will spread and lead to “reciprocal action,” in the words of Senator Frank Church, chairman of the committee. Nothing cooled the C.I.A.’s ardor for toxic cigars in the 1960s so quickly as the rash of assassinations that struck our own leaders later in the decade.
There is no arguing with assassination as a short-term expedient. But ultimately, the wars we are fighting will depend on defeating a violent ideology, not on killing individuals. Osama bin Laden got what he had coming, so let us make an exception in his case. But if we want the rest of the world to believe that the way to justice is law and not cold-blooded killing, then we need to be very careful that the killing we undertake in the name of justice remains the very rare exception, and not the rule.
By Jim Rasenberger, the author of The Brilliant Disaster: J.F.K., Castro and America’s Doomed Invasion of Cuba’s Bay of Pigs.