It is not as if assassination is a new phenomenon. It is the public nature in which it was reported that sets apart the events of May 1. Usually those who perform assassinations do it secretively and steal away in the dark.
The American public in the past viewed it as a below-the-belt, immoral tactic, the stuff of conspiracy theory novelists. If it received any official blessing as a political or military act, it was buried in top secrecy or whispered and forgotten. We preferred to see the heads of enemy government removed by capture and trials, preferably by their own people, and cloaked in legalities or bombed to unrecognizable dust by drones , hands off and less visible to our squeamish eyes.
In recent history, there were rumors of the U.S.'s failed attempt to kill Fidel Castro, but never was an assassination conducted by the U.S. covered in full glare of television, and never was such public credit given to a president as we saw transpire this month. This may not be the last time we see this happening, as we set our sights on eliminating the rest of the leadership of the hydra-headed monster that is al-Qaida.
Some have objected to shooting an unarmed man point blank in the head and heart. Most of us seem to have considered it as justice done in the context of war, a matter of revenge for Sept. 11, and essential to our own self-defense. After all, bin Laden and al-Qaida had declared a jihadist war on the West, carried it out from Spain, to New York, to the USS Cole, and to our embassies. And they had plans to continue.
The nature of war itself has changed, demanding new strategies and tactics. Once it was nation against nation. Large armies faced off in battle. Carpet and nuclear bombing caused massive collateral damage, as we politely call the death of innocents. Now it is war between a nation and a group of fanatics who have found a way to use their small numbers to terrify and to bring nations to their knees, with suicide bombers, sabotage, and airplanes targeting innocent women, children, and plain folks just trying to make a living and struggling with day to day concerns.
We were slow to move our mindset from invasions by armies and nuclear assured self-destruction. We first indulged in fruitless nation-building and winning hearts and minds at the point of a bayonet with large numbers of boots on the ground.
Now we are fighting fire with fire and we may have found a way to strike terror into the hearts of the terrorists themselves. Publicly and surgically taking out their leadership sends a powerful message, diminishes the myth of their power and cripples their ability to function effectively.
The way in which SEAL Team 6 took down bin Laden was also important. Care was taken to protect the lives of the wives and many children living in the compound. Instead of killing them all, we kept collateral damage to a minimum. That in itself was an advantage this special operation afforded us. We can take some comfort in that tactic. It may not have offset the damage drone attacks had done to the families of our targets, but it did present another method of conducting modern warfare and illustrated the better nature of American values.
Perhaps we can also accept public assassination as a method of reducing “collateral damage,” allowing us to achieve a military goal without killing women, children, and noncombatants. That may be the best moral rationale for our becoming assassins ourselves.
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