|Global Intelligence, Stratfor, February 23, 2010
The Utility of Assassination
The apparent Israeli assassination of a Hamas operative in the United Arab Emirates turned into a bizarre event replete with numerous fraudulent passports, alleged Israeli operatives caught on videotape and international outrage (much of it feigned), more over the use of fraudulent passports than over the operative’s death. If we are to believe the media, it took nearly 20 people and an international incident to kill him.
STRATFOR has written on the details of the killing as we have learned of them, but we see this as an occasion to address a broader question: the role of assassination in international politics.
We should begin by defining what we mean by assassination. It is the killing of a particular individual for political purposes. It differs from the killing of a spouse’s lover because it is political. It differs from the killing of a soldier on the battlefield in that the soldier is anonymous and is not killed because of who he is but because of the army he is serving in.
The question of assassination, in the current jargon “targeted killing,” raises the issue of its purpose. Apart from malice and revenge, as in Abraham Lincoln’s assassination, the purpose of assassination is to achieve a particular political end by weakening an enemy in some way. Thus, the killing of Adm. Isoroku Yamamoto by the Americans in World War II was a targeted killing, an assassination. His movements were known, and the Americans had the opportunity to kill him. Killing an incompetent commander would be counterproductive, but Yamamoto was a superb strategist, without peer in the Japanese navy. Killing him would weaken Japan’s war effort, or at least have a reasonable chance of doing so. With all the others dying around him in the midst of war, the moral choice did not seem complex then, nor does it seem complex now.
Such occasions rarely occur on the battlefield. There are few commanders who could not readily be replaced, and perhaps even replaced by someone more able. In any event, it is difficult to locate enemy commanders, meaning the opportunity to kill them rarely arises. And as commanders ask their troops to risk their lives, they have no moral claim to immunity from danger.