George Jonas: Assassination ... A Brief History

Roundup: Talking About History

[George Jonas is author of Vengeance: The True Story of an Israeli Counter-Terrorist Team, which was adapted for the film Munich.]

Opponents couldn't make political hay out of former U.S. Vice President Dick Cheney's withholding (if he did) from congressional scrutiny secret CIA programs to assassinate high-ranking al Qaeda operatives, if people had no qualms about targeted killing. But they do. Governments can bomb faceless troops of enemy conscripts with impunity, but are questioned closely about bombing photographable individuals. Numbers numb; identity humanizes. That's the general rule.

Countries put their weaponry for random killing on ceremonial display, but are evasive about their assets and capabilities for targeted killing. Some reticence makes sense -- stealth is an operational requirement for such missions -- but much of the evasiveness is due to moral reservations. The media will let an administration get away with a sweeping military operation against anonymous combatants, even when it endangers noncombatants, but will put governments in the hot seat over the assassination of a committed foe -- say, a terrorist -- even when there's little risk of collateral damage.

Cheney didn't invent targeted killing any more than Al Gore invented the Internet. Rulers have been known to send assassins after specific individuals since antiquity, though official taste for what the KGB used to call "wet business" varied. Citizens assumed that their governments engaged in clandestine violence -- fictional figures like 007 with "a license to kill" were staple items in popular literature -- but it wasn't until the collapse of the Soviet empire in 1991 that some of its former member states acknowledged past participation in actions of this type.

Some allied democracies, notably Israel, have been known to practice extrajudicial measures such as cross-border abduction (Adolf Eichmann in 1960) and hostage-rescue (Entebbe in 1976). Following the massacre of 11 Israeli athletes at the 1972 Munich Olympics, the retaliatory killing of individuals designated as terrorists has also been commonly associated with Israel, though not formally acknowledged. Acknowledgment hardly mattered, though, after several Israeli agents were captured and tried for mistakenly killing an Arab waiter in Lillehammer, Norway, in 1973.

Things changed in the 1990s. Life started imitating fiction quite openly, and by the end of the 20th century the targeted assassination of prominent terrorists had become regular television fare. Hamas's "spiritual" leader, Sheikh Ahmed Yassin, died on the evening news, but Israel was by no means the only state to counter terrorism in front of the cameras. Al Qaeda lieutenants in Afghanistan were blown up in prime time by U.S. Predator missiles (making the accusation that Cheney had kept targeted killings from Congress something of a joke). The hush-hush missions of James Bond were turning into public spectacles.

This candor was accompanied, or perhaps precipitated, by a shift in popular mood. When Israel's Olympic athletes were murdered in 1972, the hooded terrorists of Black September were the bad guys. Even Yasir Arafat tried to distance himself from the Munich massacre. By 2000, however, matters were more equivocal. With an eye on the moral high ground, terrorists started claiming justification and legitimacy. Soon the media were describing hijackers and suicide-bombers as "militants" and "insurgents," equating blowing up shoppers and travelers with popular resistance. While security forces put targeted assassinations on CNN, video spots on Al Jazeera portrayed the beheadings of hostages and the apotheosis of suicide bombers. News clips of airliners slamming into the World Trade Center sent people dancing into the street throughout the Arab world. Mass murder was acquiring an air of respectability. The older generation's wet business was becoming the younger generation's wet dream. The new millennium was turning into the Terrorist Century...

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