Pre-Emptive Assassination and US Foreign Policy


Heather Wokusch looks at the US government's plans and the dangers they hold for all of us.

The vaunted US "road map" to peace lies battered in a series of attacks that claimed dozens of lives this month alone. By embracing the concept of "pre-emptive assassination," the United States seems determined to follow the Middle East down the same bloody path.

The White House predictably responded to recent clashes by denouncing Palestinian suicide bombers; less predictably, Bush also criticized Israel's botched attempt to assassinate a senior Hammas leader, which ended up instead killing three bystanders and setting off the fresh wave of violence.

Labelling the pre-emptive assassination strike a "troubling" blow to peace, Bush later bowed to pressure from pro-Israel lobbying groups and Congress members; White House opinion now firmly backs the Sharon government's crackdown on militant groups, covert lethal operations and all.

No wonder. Eager to follow Sharon's lead in pre-emptively bumping off enemies, the Bush

administration is said to be working with Israeli government officials to establish the legal framework for creating America's own targeted-assassination policy. The Israeli justification (that ongoing conflict in the West Bank and Gaza Strip necessitates substituting warfare laws for self-defence) sits well with a US president hoping to fight a never-ending "war on terror."

Coincidence? The Israeli attorney-general's office calls "legal and legitimate" the systematic elimination of almost 100 Palestinian militants (not to mention innocent bystanders) since the intifada broke out in late 2000. The US State Department similarly defined its own hit job on an Al-Aqaeda operative in Yemen last November as "legal and necessary."

But pre-emptive assassination strikes are not the Bush administration's only covert method of eliminating enemies. Plans are underway to turn the controversial detention facility at Guantanamo Bay into a full-fledged death camp, see here , equipped with its own death row and execution chamber.

In direct breach of Geneva Conventions, the United States has held hundreds of prisoners of war at Guantanamo, long-term and without charge, some prisoners as young as 13 years old. But plans have been revealed to try, convict and execute prisoners without a jury or right of appeal. It's a new twist on the concept of pre-emptive assassination: kill POWs so they can't fight you later.

But the ultimate in pre-emptive assassination was the recent invasion of Iraq. Claiming America was under "imminent threat" because of Hussein's supposed WMD program, the White House invoked a "pre-emptive war" policy to justify inadvertently killing thousands of Iraqi civilians.

Ethical and legal implications aside, it's reckless for the US to continue pursuing a pre-emptive assassination policy, in any form. How ironic that US government and political leaders play up their Christianity, yet don't put pre-emptive killing in the obvious biblical context: an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth.

Put bluntly, if the United States can openly murder foreign POWs, how soon before American POWs are systematically murdered abroad? If the US can justify invading another country because of unproven "imminent threat," how soon before US cities are similarly attacked? And if pre-emptive assassination deems the murder of civilians/bystanders abroad acceptable collateral damage, then how about on US soil? The Bush administration has already tacitly accepted the Sharon government's plan to conduct assassinations in "friendly countries" - presumably including the United States. That's right: the White House has basically given the green light for Israel to conduct targeted assassinations on US soil. See here. Feeling safer?

At heart is the debate over whether pre-emptive assassination in any form is justified. Does it support or sabotage the political process; does it promote peace or further bloodshed? What proof of guilt should be required before the White House carries out an assassination; what level of collateral damage is acceptable? Until there has been open and honest debate over the pre-emptive assassination issue, the US government must avoid this dangerous path.

Heather Wokusch is a free-lance writer. She can be contacted via her web site: