Now that the big news has broken in the college football world that the good Senator Tressel may not be as lily-white as his books proclaim (First page in the Manual: Cheaters win. For a while.), I thought I'd revisit the topic of ethics that I brushed past a few weeks ago on the new national holiday now known as Osama Got His day. (Just for the record, I never believed Tressel was as spotless as his true believers like to think. After all, I knew his name from Youngstown State.)
What exactly are the ethics of an assassination? Under the traditional rules of war, anything goes with regard to figures of strategic importance. In World War II, often referenced by half-assed liberals as "the last good war" (I won't even get into the concept of 'good war' here), the US had broken the Japanese codes and knew which plane Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto was going to be flying in and promptly ambushed it and shot it down; an assassination as sure as one from a single bullet but a wartime act against a soldier and, thus, more easily placed within the realm of 'ethical' combat.
Killing Osama bin Laden, in the midst of our perpetual war (cue Orwell) against an enemy that can come from anywhere and can be identified as anyone; whose status in life can change from "citizen" to "terrorist" to "combatant" to "enemy non-combatant" (my favorite) with the stroke of a key, ended up being just one more example of the plasticity of the ethical code that the US has long touted as what sets it apart from much of the rest of the world.
Big surprise, right? I mean, we're all cynics here. It just amuses me in the same way that watching people fervently believe in US presidential candidates does. After all, think about the killing of this man the next time that people are outraged when a US or allied VIP is killed in a random bombing. It's a horrible crime against humanity! But killing this unarmed guy is somehow 'justice'. On the contrary, a targeted assassination is just what it sounds like (and, incidentally, illegal under US law and multiple international treaties which the US is a signatory to, not least of them the Geneva Conventions), whether you use a SEAL team or and a gun or a block of plastique and a Honda. The phrase "don't stoop to their level" comes to mind.
"Oh, but it's not even the same!", you say. "After all, we just shot one guy who deserved it. They kill innocents with their bombs." In military parlance, innocents are often termed "collateral damage". I won't bore you with the endless stories about collateral damage that currently has the president (read: stooge) of Afghanistan making vague threats against the US as a consequence. Go find them.
Terrorists are often the neighbors of the collateral damage and it's said activity that frequently propels them into that life. Of course, there are still ethical questions even within the framework of terrorism. When the Baader-Meinhof/Red Faction group were active in Germany in the 70s, they committed a number of bombings; at least two that injured the very workers that they claimed to represent. There was, of course, outrage within the organization for having harmed the very people they were fighting for, even though the most notable occurrence was an attempt to assassinate the editor of a prominent German newspaper.
If the RAF or al-Qaeda had the ability to only kill their targets with their bombing attacks, one would think they would exercise said ability (which, incidentally, is not completely beyond the reach of many groups, since Hezbollah has proven to be very adept at this over the years.) After all, why kill or maim the very people you're trying to recruit/protect/serve/inspire? A reasonable person has to assume that some degree of ethical assessment goes into acts like this in the same way that the US government calculates what laws it's willing to break or principles it's willing to abandon to serve its masters' interests.
Of course, it's easier to simply assume that bin Laden and all of his associates are simply inhuman monsters because it's easier to fight and kill people when you dehumanize them. That's been a standard approach of warfare from time out of mind. So, did the inhuman monster deserve to die? Most people would insist that he did because of his supposed role as the planner of the World Trade Center attacks. After all, even though he was only indirectly responsible, the perspective of Nuremberg, that the planners are every bit as culpable as the doers, is still a popular and easily argued stance. It's only mildly hilarious to the historically obsessed among us that the very Conventions that the US has been serially violating for the past half century were written in response to the very acts that took place in the time period of the Good War and to which Nuremberg was the initial response. Irony is fun!
Again, did he deserve to die? I don't know. Does Larry Summers deserve to die for inflicting his economic ideology on the Baltic republics and Russia and indirectly (i.e. like bin Laden) causing what may be thousands of suicides and untold misery? (pleasesayyespleasesayyespleasesayyes) Where do personal ethics, national ethics, and the concept of justice meet? Do they meet? Does national interest trumps ethics or can it be one and the same, in the long-term? "Let every action aim solely for the common good..." Or is it simply impossible to be genuinely ethical in a "wartime" situation?
Let's back up a bit: When the Bill of Rights was first discussed and promoted by George Mason and later Madison and Jefferson, one of the key points that they referenced was "freedom from occupying armies", which became the third amendment that freed civilians from being forced to quarter troops in their homes. Part of that was motivated by people being tossed from their homes by the British in Boston during the revolution. But part of it was motivated by there being a distinction between wartime and peacetime. Most of the writers of the Constitution were very concerned about the concept of a standing army, as it not only represented a drain on resources, but also a government that always had the use of force within easy access. This concern (and confusion) was later eloquently expressed by Einstein, when he said: "You cannot simultaneously prevent and prepare for war."
However, since the end of World War 2, the US has been on a wartime footing and wartime economy, with the "war on terror" only the latest manifestation of the national policy that someone is always out to get us so we'd better be ready to shoot back (cue MacArthur). Does that mean wartime ethics are perpetual, as well? And what defines them? We've already seen the willingness of the US to evade the accepted 'rules' of war., but there's a more pervasive aspect than simply outrageous acts of violence. It's yet another example of the militarization of US society that has created an outlook where nothing can be sufficiently 'solved' without the use of guns; most often in the interest of economic influence or control in other nations (at home, of course, we just use old-fashioned bribery.)
If one decides that we are permanently at war, then any ethical constraints on behavior become that much weaker (after all, "things happen" in war) and the concept of a civilized society becomes that much more distant. If one decides that the previously acknowledged 'rules' of war are no longer applicable because this war is different, it just gets that much worse. So, where do ethics and, for that matter, civility actually come into play, not just in the bin Laden assassination, but US foreign policy in general?