Email Ken Stallings   The Morality of Killing

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"To every thing there is a season, and a time to every purpose under the heaven:  A time to kill, and a time to heal; a time to break down, and a time to build up."  -- Ecclesiastes 3:1 & 3:3

In their reaction to the recent killing of Iranian General Qassem Soleimani, many in the liberal media have revealed consternation of various emotional levels over the morality of killing someone who's a senior leader in a national government.  But, the law has very clearly established that there are times when killing someone is legal.  But the law, does not really contemplate the morality of an action, merely its legality.

In considering Soleimani's death, the moral question is perhaps the most important consideration of all.  And in that consideration, perhaps it is time to ask ourselves some basic questions.  Would it have been amoral to have killed Adolph Hitler in early 1940, vice array tens of thousands of men in battle to slaughter each other over and over again, until five years later, and millions of innocent people dead, the time came when Hitler killed himself vice face the capital punishment meted out to so many other senior leaders of his Nazi regime?

The law makes it clear.  One is entirely justified in killing someone to protect the innocent lives of others.  We widely accept that concept when applied to individual cases, but some seem to question that same concept when it would apply to killing one man in order to save many thousands of innocent lives.  There are Presidential executive orders that apply, the most recent being EO 12333, which among other things, says, "No person employed or acting on behalf of the United States government shall engage in, or conspire to engage in, assassination."  Two previous executive orders, EO 11905 and EO 12036, codified the same ban.

However, one must examine what the accepted definition of assassination really is.  The formal definition is to "murder (a usually prominent person) by sudden or secret attack often for political reasons; to injure or destroy unexpectedly and treacherously."  Note, the definition doesn't say anything about killing someone in order to prevent said person from ordering the murder of hundreds or thousands of other people.  Though minimized in the definition, assassination is normally considered within the context of killing someone over political or religious grounds.  And in those cases where most people agree that acts of assassination took place, such as John Kennedy, Martin Luther King, or Mahatma Gandhi, the motivation for murder had nothing to do with saving innocent lives from imminent death, but instead, was murder motivated by political ideology.

If you murder someone simply because you disagree with his philosophy, then it's easy to label such an action as treachery, and therefore assassination.  On the other hand, if you kill someone because you have reliable information that said person has already carried out actions, and issued orders, that caused tens of thousands of innocent people to die, and you have additional information that he's about to issue more such orders, and coordinate their actions, then it's hard to label killing that person as being an act of treachery.  It seems clear that instead, it's an act of self defense.

We do not call soldiers on a battlefield murderers, at least not in the legal sense.  Though, some people for political reasons do so.  The law is quite clear on this point.  Like the Bible verse, there are accepted times when it is moral to kill.  Normally, this is out of desire to protect others.  For some, it comes down to a different argument.  Some argue that it is moral to kill a stateless terrorist, but somehow evil to kill someone who's a senior member of a foreign government, even when the two people are doing the same thing.

Is being a senior military leader, or a national head of state, a sufficient cover to allow someone to literally get away with murder?  Or, is it somehow only moral to kill such senior national leaders only after a great war is fought, and the legal action, such as at the Nuremberg Trials, is first sanctified by the prior slaughter of millions of people, and the wholesale destruction of civilization?  And it isn't just that example that brought the surviving senior Nazi leadership to justice after World War II.  The International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia was set up by UN Resolution 827 in May of 1993.  It set up a legal military mission to capture people indicted for war crimes in Bosnia, and other former Yugoslavian territories. 

These strategic and pinpoint special ops missions were carried out by international forces, and resulted in the capture and transportation to The Hague of 111 accused war criminals, leading to the conviction of 90.  What's not often considered is the times that some of the 161 indicted people chose to fight against the special forces sent to capture them, and were themselves killed.  So, we have a recent history of political leaders and military generals declared pariahs, and strategically hunted down and killed or captured, and in methods that did not represent the prior killing of large numbers of innocent people, nor destroying cities.

We have the technology today to isolate and kill individuals in ways that avoid harm to anyone else.  Such tactics have been successfully employed for decades in the Global War on Terrorism.  The so-called "drone strikes" are a vivid example of this tactic.  It's hard to estimate how many people were saved because those terror leaders planning their deaths were themselves killed in isolation before those plans could be carried out.

When one has the means to prevent great carnage, by killing the puppet masters who plan mass death for political or criminal objectives, it really seems a bit thick to say it's amoral to do so.  These narrow-minded people instead seem to argue that society must array great hordes of soldiers to slaughter each other, and destroy society on grand scales, before finally turning its righteous attention to the people who pulled the strings to let loose the dogs of war.  If one instead wishes to agree to the moral argument of going after the evil leaders immediately, but base their objections on the notion that our own leaders could be targeted in the same manner, then consider that our leaders have already been targeted for assassination many times. 

In fact, one can hardly find an American President who's served since Abraham Lincoln, who hasn't had at least one serious assassination attempt made against him.  We tend to forget the attempts that failed, such as those carried out against Gerald Ford, or George W. Bush.  But, remember too that George H.W. Bush was targeted for assassination on the orders of Saddam Hussein, and then President Bill Clinton ordered a cruise missile strike against an Iraqi Intelligence Service building as a warning against Hussein repeating such orders again.

Those examples prove that, in truth, the nature of warfare has evolved over the decades to become more focused on pinpoint identification of responsible agents, and to employ precision weapons to kill only those people.  Long ago, the idea of bombing an entire city to rubble, to take out a single military target, was relegated to amoral mass carnage.  But, in World War II, thousand plane raids were carried out regularly because that was considered the only available means to attack those vital military targets.  And, the ability to target senior leaders was extremely limited, though the British did carry out a successful assassination of Reinhard Heydrich.  So, the idea of killing the senior leaders was considered back then, but infrequently carried out.  There were plans on the table to assassinate Hitler, and some Germans tried unsuccessfully to do it. 

The horrifying outcome of World War II changed nearly everyone's notion of the morality of war.  Society was forced to acknowledge the risk of outright human destruction if we did not change our ways.  What changed was the recognition of the moral question of killing so many people just to obtain a single, often fleeting, military advantage in a war.

An effort was made to engineer precision weapons, and tactics developed to use them in ways that effectively take out the desired military target, but avoids harming civilians.  No one can logically argue that such changes are amoral -- that we should go back to carpet bombing to enact widespread death and destruction.  We've reached a point in our civil development, where we have the ability to target those individuals whom we consider responsible for killing people in large numbers.  The manner in which we killed Qassem Soleimani is a vivid example of that capability. 

Perhaps, in the effort to fight wars in this manner, we might change hearts and minds, even among the most power lusting leaders of the world, and cause them to reconsider the merits of carrying out acts of mass violence and military adventurism.  If that sort of change is achieved, then the result is not only moral, but among the most significant advances of civilization in human history.

-- Ken Stallings

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