Say Whaaaat?

Under what conditions would it be morally acceptable for the United States to assassinate a foreign leader? As questions about morality go, it seems kind of like a no-brainer: never. At least that's the answer that any good Catholic would have to give. But you'd never know it to read Jim Tucker's blog where we're told that (emphasis mine):
he's [Chavez] certainly not committed any acts of war against us. And until he does so, it's not right for us to talk about assassinations or war.
Frankly, talk about assassinations would not be right even if he had committed an act of war against us. That's simple, straightforward moral theory there, folks. But Jimbo has a tendency to shoot from the hip, as I've pointed out a couple of times. It's too bad--these days one looks for a little sanity, or at least moral clarity, especially from one's clergy.

Comments

Tom P. said…
So you think that assassinating Hitler would have been morally wrong even if it had ended WWII and saved millions of lives? In the event of a war, isn't the leader of the enemy country as much a combatant as any soldier?
Scott Carson said…
Wow! Is that what would have happened? Man, you've got some kinda insight there! I wish I could see into the future!

But seriously, folks, I'm afraid that I just can't endorse the sort of relativistic, ends-justify-the-means, utilitarian approach to morality that you're recommending. If I were to endorse that sort of thing, I would not have any reason not to endorse things like the following:

Stem cell research.

Destruction of human embryos.

Use of unwilling human beings as experimental subjects (hmmm...one of the very things that is supposed to make Hitler so bad...)

All of the above could be justified simply by saying "What if we could make things a lot better for everybody else by doing this illicit thing?" If you're a utilitarian, there is nothing to stop you from doing anything that you want to do, just so long as what you want to do is going to have some sort of positive payoff.

On the other hand, if you're bound to a moral law of the sort that Catholicism teaches, then you're bound to it regardless of what its consequences are.

I certainly sympathize with the desire to eliminate a source of great evil--that desire is, in itself, a good thing. It's only the means that one employs to get rid of the evil that can get us into trouble. If you can find some way to get rid of the Hitlers of the world without killing them in an immoral way, then I'm all for it. But if you want me to become like them in order to get rid of them, well, no thanks.
Tom P. said…
I agree with you IF we were talking about killing Sally Smith whose only crime was being at the cross roads of some time continuum that allowed her death to end WWII. But we are talking about the guy who is ordering his troops to kill people. Killing him is self defense. Or in your world is it immoral to kill an enemy combatant unless he actually has a gun in his hand and is pointing it at you? Does that mean the Captain who is ordering his troops into battle is off limits but the private who carries out the order is OK to kill?
Scott Carson said…
Well now I think you're talking about something rather different. I was saying that it is immoral to assassinate a foreign leader. It is not immoral to use force against an aggressor if your intention is self-defense. The force must be proportionate, however, which usually means that you may not intentionally use lethal force unless that is what your assailant is using against you and it is the only means of stopping him.

And, of course, Chavez is not Hitler.
Tom said…
As I understand it, in the Catholic moral tradition, assassination is an act that involves treachery: the victim is killed due to some sort of betrayal of trust.

So I don't think the Catholic objection to the sort of wartime targeted killing that would informally be called "assassination" follows from the traditional Catholic opposition to assassination as treated by the moralists. If the leader of an enemy country is a legitimate military target -- and I'm saying "if" -- then it would seem that whatever means are legitimate for attacking other military targets would be legitimate for attacking the leader.
Tom P. said…
Reread the quote, "he's [Chavez] certainly not committed any acts of war against us. And until he does so, it's not right for us to talk about assassinations or war." So assuming that Mr. Chavez has committed acts of war against us (which I would assume include killing Americans) then wouldn't assassinating him be self defense? If you are talking about assassinating a foreign leader because we don't like his policies or because he doesn't dance to our song then I agree wholeheartedly with you. I'll give you an example... I believe that killing Stalin would have been immoral because he was not doing anything that directly harmed us and killing him was unlikely to make the situation any better for citizens of the USSR as any new head of the USSR was likely to follow similar policies anyway. But what about Pol Pot? I don't think this question is as straightforward as we might like it to be. Is it ever moral to assassinate someone who is taking the lives of innocents?
Tom P. said…
OK... confusion reigns. There are two different "Tom's" commenting here. The comment about "trust" was from the other Tom.

Tom P.
Scott Carson said…
I myself don't know of any Catholic moral theorist who would hold that it is ever morally licit to assassinate anyone, but I can't claim to have complete knowledge of all Catholic moral theorists.

As for "taking out" someone who is killing innocents--it really does seem to me that there are always alternatives to killing. We were able to "take out" Saddam Hussein without killing him, and I myself find it difficult to imagine a scenario in which it would be literally impossible to get rid of someone like him without killing him. I suppose we could construct some sort of imaginary scenario in which there is no other course of action open, but I think that in the real world there are always alternatives. Of course, when we went to war against Iraq we did not go into it with any promises of keeping Saddam alive at all costs, but it is significant that we brought him down without killing him.

In times of war there can't be any guarantees, either that someone will be kept alive or that they won't be. But whether we are at war or not we are bound by the moral law, in my opinion.
Apollodorus said…
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Scott Carson said…
I don't think that assassination is the same thing as an act of war. In a typical battlefield setting combatants are applying deadly force in defense of their own lives (assuming that they are following the principles of ius in bello--admittedly something of a stretch, usually). An assassination is a covert taking of a person's life under conditions that usually entail that he cannot defend himself and, hence, is intrinsically unjust.
Apollodorus said…
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Scott Carson said…
At the very least, combat in wartime takes place between combatants. A political leader, technically speaking, is not a combatant. In many cases he is a civilian. In our system the president is technically the leader of the military, but I don't think anyone thinks that even out president should be killed without due process of law.

I can see no reason for regarding a political assassination as on a moral par with the killing of a combatant in time of war, even if it is believed that the end will justify the means. As I have already noted, we were able to remove Saddam Hussein from power without killing him, and I doubt very much that killing him instead would have greatly altered what we are now witnessing as the consequences of removing him from power.

Nor do I take it as obvious that killing Hitler would have greatly affected the course of WWII and its aftermath.
Tom P. said…
I have to laugh at your weird logic. A political leader who orders troops to kill you is not a combatant? Killing thousands of soldiers is better than killing the one man who is ordering those troops into battle? So kill the private but hands off the captain. Kill the guy with the gun but not the one who puts the gun in his hand and points him at you. One wonders how WWII would have turned out if we had followed your advice.
Scott Carson said…
Actually, in WWII we did follow my advice, and I think we have a pretty good idea how it turned out. We were able to bring Hitler's regime down without assassinating him.

Suppose, however, we had assassinated him? What guarantee do we have that his generals would not have continued the war, or perhaps made things worse by acting more rationally? If we had assassinated Hitler before he invaded Russia there's no reason to suppose that the allies would have been able to prevail against him, and the Germans were only months away from developing atomic weaponry of their own. If their resources had not been wasted on the Russian front, there's no telling how bad things might have gotten.

So there's absolutely no reason to think that assassinating a foreign leader is ever the only course of action to prevent the killing of others. It is one strategy, but I don't know of anyone who defends it as just. Suppose we decide to regard the leader of the foreign country as a combatant. Even in combat you cannot simply kill whomever you like. Your opponent must be capable of defending himself. Assassination, by its very nature, takes away that possibility.

I doubt that what you're recommending is giving Hitler a gun just like the one you've got, then saying "OK, pardner, draw!"
Tom said…
Even in combat you cannot simply kill whomever you like. Your opponent must be capable of defending himself.

Does it follow, then, that cruise missiles can only be used against armies that have defenses against cruise missiles, and that air raids cannot target air defense sites?

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