Legalize Assassination!

Science, evolution, and politics explained.
July 2 2001 9:30 PM

Legalize Assassination!

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Are Americans too squeamish to vaporize Baghdad, should the need arise? This prospect has been on the mind of National Review editor Rich Lowry lately. It's one reason he thinks old-fashioned deterrence—mutually assured destruction—can't be counted on to keep us safe from any nuke-tipped missiles wielded by "rogue states."  

Robert Wright Robert Wright

Robert Wright is a senior fellow at the New America Foundation. Follow him on Twitter.

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Lowry raised the issue in a column advocating national missile defense and critiquing my own critique of missile defense. He wrote: "It is not necessarily a certainty that the U.S. would be willing to make such a [retaliatory] strike, and as long as there is the barest hint of uncertainty about this, an attack on the U.S. might not be an act of suicidal madness."

Before proceeding to the main issue—whether America would indeed pull the trigger—note the bizarre analysis in which Lowry embeds it. He says that a nuclear attack on the United States wouldn't necessarily be crazy so long as there were "the barest hint of uncertainty" about American retaliation. So, if Saddam Hussein decides that the chances of an attack on America leading to his death have dropped from 100 percent to 98 percent, then it wouldn't be crazy for him to attack? I hold even the most roguish dictators to a higher standard of rationality than that.

Certainly during the Cold War, when deterrence was a consensus doctrine, nobody considered a 100-percent chance of retaliation a prerequisite for continued peace. The idea was that, given the intense human fear of death, any large chance of its ensuing—90 percent, 80 percent—has a reliably inhibiting effect. 

Still, during the Cold War we tried to keep the chances of successful retaliation pretty high. (That was the idea behind the Anti-Ballistic Missile treaty's ban on missile defense.) And I agree that we wouldn't want them to drop too low. Is there really a danger of that?

Not much of one. Lowry has presumably never lived in a nation with a true war mentality. Neither have I, but I guarantee you that if an Iraqi missile took out mid-town Manhattan, you would see a recalibration of America's bourgeois moral sensibilities. Overnight, the nation would move toward a World-War-II mindset, which countenanced the wholesale slaughter of civilians in various cities, not just Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

Besides, even if America balked at nuclear retaliation, does Lowry think there's any chance that America's military would rest before Saddam Hussein were either dead or in prison awaiting trial? Does Lowry think Hussein could possibly think that?

If anyone does suffer from that illusion, there's an easy fix. The assassination of foreign leaders is now banned by executive order. Maybe that law needs a loophole: National political and military leaders whose nations launch a nuclear strike against any other nation can legally be assassinated via covert American action. And America is free to use any tools, ranging from Oswald-type marksmanship to cruise missiles to special-forces helicopters descending on country villas to bunker-busting bombs. And if circumstances don't permit a clean kill, and dozens or hundreds or even thousands of innocent people must die—well, nobody ever said the deterrence business isn't messy.

Such a law may strike some people as extreme. But compared to what? Compared to spending a jillion dollars on a missile shield that not only may not work, but in various ways may actually increase the chances of nuclear war? (Click here to read a "Foreigners" column in favor of legalizing assassination.)

Of the several pro-missile-defense points raised in Lowry's column, there's only one that I haven't addressed either above or in my previous reply: He worries that a rogue state could use nuclear missiles without actually launching them. Thus, Saddam Hussein's mere possession of nukes could have intimidated the United States into not intervening in Kuwait. This scenario first got prominent airplay months ago, when Donald Rumsfeld trotted it out after missile-defense critics started asking why old-fashioned deterrence wouldn't work against the Saddam Husseins of the world.

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