Friday, May 26, 2006


Hume's Ghost came to me today with a reference to an article that appeared in the British newspaper The Independent about assassinating heads of state.

I had been considering this topic for a while. However, I have shied away from it. Mostly, I kept putting the subject on the back burner because of concern that the NSA with its sniffer programs going through the internet may pick up my posting and get the wrong idea.

Indeed, this is one of the evils of living in a society where there is no true freedom of speech. The problem that everybody focuses on is the case where a person claims something that others sensor. Yet, another, more severe problem is self-censorship where people become nervous about saying things they fear “those in charge” might misinterpret. It is better to be safe than sorry. So, a lot of very useful debate also gets stifled.

These fears (whether rational or irrational) aside, the ethics of assassination is a perfectly legitimate subject, as the essay below will show. There are a number of factors to consider in determining whether the assassination of the head of a country is or is not justified. So, I have decided to go ahead and tackle the subject.

The Article In Question

The article in question concerned a case in which a member of the British Parliament, George Galloway, said that it would be morally permissible for a suicide bomber to assassinate Prime Minister Tony Blair.

Specifically, Galloway said,

Yes, it would be morally justified. I am not calling for it - but if it happened it would be of a wholly different moral order to the events of 7/7. It would be entirely logical and explicable. And morally equivalent to ordering the deaths of thousands of innocent people in Iraq -- as Blair did.


First, we need to get past the fact that this is a very sloppy sentence. It is sloppy enough to suggest that the person who said it has a morally deficient level of respect for truth or moral responsibility.

For example, Blaire did not order the deaths of anybody that I am aware of. He ordered an action that resulted in deaths. However, this is not the same as ordering the deaths. If the President of a corporation approves a marketing program that ends up costing the company $100 million, it is still absurd to say that he ordered the loss of $100 million. Galloway's representation of Blair’s actions is a lie.

Furthermore, the statement that assassinating Blair is 'the moral equivalent of ordering the deaths of thousands of innocent people' would suggest that assassinating Blair was wrong. Ordering the deaths of thousands of innocent people is wrong. If assassinating Blair is its moral equivalent, then it would be wrong as well. However, this does not appear to be what Galloway means to be saying.

These mistakes suggest that Galloway is one of a much-too-long list of people who cannot think and speak at the same time.

I am going to interpret Galloway as trying to say that the assassination of Blair would be proportional to the crime of causing (though not ordering) the deaths of thousands of innocent people.

Never Assassinate

Now that I have clarified Galloway’s statement, I want to address a statement made in the report by Labour MP Stephen Pound, who criticized Galloway. He is reported to have said, "It's reprehensible to say it would be justified for a suicide bomber to assassinate anyone."

I can refute this statement with one word.


If the attempt to assassinate Hitler in July, 1944, had been a suicide bombing, it might have succeeded. Hitler’s life was spared, it is believed, because somebody moved the brief case containing the bomb out of the way. More to the point, the legitimacy of the assassination attempt is not to be determined by whether the assassin lived or died in the attempt. The main question is whether the attempt itself is justified.

Mr. Pound should also take care to remember that the first shots fired in the actual invasion of Iraq was an attempt to assassinate Saddam Hussein and his sons. Bush had given Saddam Hussein a deadline for leaving the country. Before that deadline ran out (while it might have been the case that Saddam Hussein was making plans to comply with the demand), the Bush Administration acquired information about where Saddam Hussein and his sons might be. So, they launched a strike on that location in an attempt to assassinate these leaders. I repeat, this attack took place before Bush’s deadline (thus breaking the promise implied within the deadline).

Mr. Pound may wish to make sure that he can come up with a consistent moral position on these cases before he starts to make blanket statements about the justification for assassination.

The response at this point may well be, "Blair is not Hitler."

That is true.

It is also irrelevant.

I did not say that Blair was Hitler. I said that the statement “assassination is never justified” is false by using Hitler as an example. I will assume that I have, in fact, proved that “assassination is never justified” is false.

In addition, a person does not need to be as bad as Hitler to deserve assassination. Hitler was not just barely over the moral line to where assassination is legitimate. Hitler was so far past the line that we still have reason to ask: How bad must a leader be to deserve assassination? Answering this question as it applies to Blair does not require proving that Blair is as bad as Hitler. Blair might be somebody who has crossed the line, but just not by as much as Hitler did.

Mitigating Circumstances

Even if a political leader has crossed over the moral line, there are factors to consider before determining that assassination is justified.

The first question is: Are there other methods for removing a head of state from power that do not involve violence? If there is, then the right thing to do is to use these systems, rather than use violence.

One issue that I have made a lot of noise about in recent posts is the value of due process.

No person should believe that he has so much wisdom that he can unerringly determine who should live and who should die. To reduce the possibility of unjust harm, individuals who advocate harm have an obligation to appeal to a neutral third party to adjudicate the issue. This is why we have judges – we use them to provide “due process” to reduce the chance of unjust harm being done.

If a method of due process exists, then this method should be used.

England has civil tools available to remove a leader from public office. It starts with a vote of no confidence, at which point the Queen is generally asked to call for new elections to find a prime minister in which the House of Commons could find new confidence. These rules are a matter of tradition rather than hard law. However, respect for tradition is strong in some people. This is an effective non-violent way to remove a tyrant from office.

America’s System of Removal

At this point, we have to admit that America’s system for removing a rogue head of state from power is defective. The last 10 years has taught us that the leading predictor of whether a President will be indicted is, "Is the President a member of the same party that controls the House of Representatives?" If the answer is "No", the President will be indicted for trivial reasons. If the answer is "Yes" then no crime will be considered important enough to justify an investigation, let alone impeachment.

We could find solace in that the people still have the power to replace a rogue President’s defenders in Congress with new leaders. Unfortunately, Congress has done such a good job gerrymandering the election districts that it is now virtually impossible to get an elected official out of office.

Our existing political system is one in which a Legislator effectively says, “only those who are very likely to vote for me are allowed to vote in my district.” This is not accomplished by threatening those who would vote against that legislator with fines and imprisonment. It is accomplished by drawing the boundaries of the district in such a way that it captures those who are likely to vote for that person and pushes those who will not into other districts.

We do not choose our representatives any more. Our representatives choose us.

So, our ability to demand that our representatives remove a rogue President has been severely curtailed.

Curtailed enough to justify assassination?


Congress may have engineered significantly higher costs to remove a rogue President, but it has not closed down those options entirely. They are still less costly than promoting the complete disregard for law and civil order that an assassination would imply. If a President is truly such a tyrant, then the people had better muster the courage to have him removed from power even against the obstacles that his partisan supporters have built in his defense. If the people are not willing to go through that much effort, we may assume that they do not care enough to justify an assassination either.


Mr. Galloway was wrong. His words were also intellectually reckless. If it is the case that Mr. Blair should be removed from office, so long as institutions exist that allow for non-violent due process, then those are the systems that ought to be put to use. Only when those systems break down – only where a person truly deserves to be removed from office and yet has dismantled the civilian institutions that allow for his removal (e.g., Hitler, Saddam Hussein, Stalin, Kim Jong-il ) can one legitimately look to assassination as an option.

Even then, there is one more factor to consider. Once this leader is removed, will the people be better or worse off? Are we putting the people on a road to freedom and justice? Or are we putting people on a road to the mass slaughter of civil war as they fight to fill the power vacuum left by a dead tyrant?

The attempt to answer these questions is precisely why a system of due process is a moral requirement. It is utterly foolish to set up a system where a lone idiot has the power to make these types of decisions without needing to present evidence to neutral third parties that his actions actually do make sense. An idiot's actions still tend to make sense to that idiot, but that is not good enough.

Actions that aim to bypass the system of due process that help to provide us with our security are to be discouraged. When it comes to arranging to eliminate a rogue leader from power, no individual (even if he is President) should think that he has the right and the power to make that decision without making an appeal to some system of due process.


Hume's Ghost said...

'm not sure if you were being serious or not about the assasination and the NSA picking up on it, but a few months ago I was in a Borders and saw a copy of an Emma Goldman book and thought about purchasing it, but then decided not to because I didn't want the purchase to show up on my debit card record (for the same reason you didn't want to write about assasination - that someone would get the wrong idea.)

Whether or not my fear is rational, its a sad state of affairs when one is afraid to excercise intellectual liberty for fear of persecution.

And its ridiculous that someone should have to fear discussing assasination. That's the sort of thing we need to get out in the open and discuss. If people start thinking unanswered "arguments" like Galloway's are legitimate, then we have a problem.

Another thing about Galloway's statement that bothered me was that he seemed to be saying it would justified on the grounds that it would vengeance. Sort of an eye for an eye.

Thanks for tackling the topic.

Anonymous said...

Of course, one of the many problems I have with the left is that they have been making so much noise about Bush from day one that, now that there are legitimate concerns about his actions, talk about them can't get up over the background noise. The majority have learned to tune out the vocal but baseless complaints of "Bush stole the 2000 election," so possibly legitimate complaints of "Bush is spying on us" fall on deafer ears than they might. And that's a shame, since it raises the standard for protective action too high.