Assassinating Iranian Nuclear Scientists
Glenn Greenwald, who as of today is blogging for Salon, has a rather shocking post up entitled, “Extremist Bush supporter calls for murder of scientists.” I figured some whacked out global warming foe had gone over the edge.
It turns out the culprit is none other than “University of Tennessee Law Professor and right-wing blogger Glenn Reynolds.” The InstaPundit is calling for murdering scientists?! I thought he liked scientists?
It turns out it’s this post on responding to the threat from Iran that has Greenwald upset:
We should be responding quietly, killing radical mullahs and Iranian atomic scientists, supporting the simmering insurgencies within Iran, putting the mullahs’ expat business interests out of business, etc. Basically, stepping on the Iranians’ toes hard enough to make them reconsider their not-so-covert war against us in Iraq.
Just think about how extremist and deranged that is. We are not even at war with Iran. Congress has not declared war or authorized military force against that country. Yet Reynolds thinks that the Bush administration, unilaterally, should send people to murder Iranian scientists and religious leaders — just pick out whichever ones we don’t like and slaughter them. No charges. No trial. No accountability. Just roving death squads deployed and commanded by our Leader, slaughtering whomever he wants dead.
I’m not sure assassinating Iranians is a great idea; then again, I don’t think there are any particularly pleasant options on the table. Still, this doesn’t strike me as “extremist and deranged.”
As a general rule, we don’t bring charges against foreign enemies, let alone give them trials. We haven’t had a declared war since V-J Day, yet we’ve conducted more military operations that killed foreigners than I can count. Goodness, that’s true of just the eight years of the Clinton administration. We conducted numerous bombing campaigns against al Qaeda-linked targets, various facilities in Iraq, and the assets and troops of the Yugoslavian government, to cite the more prominent and deadly examples.
Every U.S. President since Gerald Ford — including Ronald Reagan — has either issued or left standing an Executive Order which expressly provides:
No person employed by or acting on behalf of the United States Government shall engage in, or conspire to engage in, assassination.
Every administration, Democratic and Republican, have agreed that creating death squads and engaging in extra-judicial assassinations is so repugnant to our political values and so destructive to our moral credibility around the world that an absolute ban is necessary — including at the height of the Cold War, as we battled the “evil empire” which had thousands of nuclear-tipped warheads pointed at numerous American cities.
As Elizabeth B. Bazan’s excellent report [PDF] for the Congressional Research Service makes clear, though, the interpretation of that line is far from clearcut:
However, the scope of the term seems to be the subject of differing interpretations, both generally, and depending upon whether the killing at issue took place in time of war or in time of peace. For example, it might be contended that the Ford executive order and its successors were responding to concerns raised with respect to killing of foreign officials or heads of state, and may not have been intended to extend to killing of others. Such an interpretation would be consistent with the focus of the Church Committee’s investigation, to which the Ford executive order responded.
Greenwald observes that “the first Order on assassinations was issued by Abraham Lincoln (General Order 100) in the midst of the Civil War.” But, from the standpoint of the United States Government, the citizens of the states which had seceded from the Union were still citizens of the United States and therefore subject to the protections of the Constitution. (That did not, one may recall, stop Lincoln for ordering the killing of hundreds of thousands of them on the battlefield.) Iranian nuclear scientists are not, last I checked, American citizens.
The law of war does not allow proclaiming either an individual belonging to the hostile army, or a citizen, or a subject of the hostile government, an outlaw, who may be slain without trial by any captor, any more than the modern law of peace allows such international outlawry; on the contrary, it abhors such outrage.
Of course, we target terrorist camps, weapons factories, and the like for military destruction with some frequency. Certainly, if we had a shot at Osama bin Laden, we would take it. We killed al Zarqawi and dozens of al Qaeda leaders in various attacks. The Israelis routinely assassinate Hamas and Hezbollah leaders.
Kristen Eichensehr lays out the moral high ground/encouraging retaliation in kind argument, which I find somewhat persuasive. But that’s a different thing than pretending that targeted killings of foreign people deemed national security threats are somehow verboten.
And what is most striking is that these anti-assassination prohibitions apply (a) to wartime and (b) even to foreign leaders of nations who are at war. But here, Reynolds is actually advocating that we murder scientists and religious figures who are “radical,” whatever that might happen to mean in the unchecked mind of George Bush.
If we are to be a country that now sends death squads into nations with whom we are not at war to slaughter civilians — scientists and religious figures — what don’t we do? American credibility in the world has fallen to literally unimaginable depths over the last six years, but it is critical to remember that with a President never to face the electorate again, many Bush supporters — and certainly the White House itself — are headed in the direction of increasingly extremist and bloodthirsty measures. And it is hard to overstate what a complete disregard they have — really an intense contempt — for the values that have long defined this country.
Here, excepting the rhetorical excesses, Greenwald is on much more solid ground. There are some strong arguments to be made against political assassinations, especially against the likes of religious leaders and scientists, as well as for allowing the executive to conduct them unchecked by legislative oversight.
It would be more fruitful, in my judgment, without poisoning the well by deeming proposals “extremist and deranged.” Then again, faux outrage is more likely to get attention.