We should be clear about the moral quality of the blood-drenched career of Imad Mughniyeh, the high-level Hizbullah security operative who was assassinated in Damascus on February 12, apparently by Israel. Mughniyeh has been credibly accused of having master-minded a number of acts that have to count as significant atrocities: the bombing of the US Embassy in Beirut, and then of its annex, in 1983; the bombings of a Jewish community center and an Israeli consular center in Buenes Aires in 1992-94; the kidnappings of western civilians in Beirut, and perhaps the killing of Malcolm Kerr, the president of AUB. (I am not counting here actions taken against military personnel who have after all placed themselves in a position where they have a “right” to kill under certain circumstances and also knowingly accept the risk that they might be killed.)
What should one seek to do with or about a person like Imad Mughniyeh?
My main answer when considering the question of what to do with the perpetrators of atrocities– and let’s face it, gratuitously launching a war of invasion against a foreign country is also an atrocity; and was certainly recognized as such in the operations of the Nuremberg and Tokyo Tribunals– is that we, human society in general, clearly need to be protected against the future depredations of such people. We need to be able to credibly and verifiably incapacitate their ability to re-offend.
But, and this is a large “but”, there are many different ways of achieving this. Containing such people, cutting off their access to the networks on which they depend for their depradations, and possibly even reintegrating them into society are all ways that the incapacitation goal can be reached. I have written a lot in this regard about, for example, the case of Joseph Kony, the leader of the Ugandan movement the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA), who is credibly accused of masterminding and committing atrocities that were of an (anti-)esthetic order of repugnance far beyond anything Mughniyeh has been accused of doing, and that probably also ended and blighted the lives of many more noncombatants than Mughniyeh ever did.
Mughniyeh was far from the “worst” perpetrator of atrocities in the world, but he gained particular notoriety and attention in the west because so many of his victims were westerners.
Anyway, with regard to Kony, the majority of the Acholi people who provided the greatest number of his victims, though by no means all of them, have argued strongly for an approach to his incapacitation that is centered on his his reintegration into settled society. (That has put them at odds with the Hague-based International Criminal Court, which seeks to arrest and try Kony. But the Acholi and many or most other Ugandans don’t want to do that, since it might drive Kony’s supporters into further acts of retaliatory violence. Thus, the ICC’s indictment has been stuck– and because of it, so has the process of making peace and normalizing people’s livelihoods in broad swathes of Northern Uganda… )
My main point: If you want to incapacitate a perpetrator of heinous acts, there is certainly more than one way to do it. At this point, we can identify three:
- (1) assassination;
(2) arrest him and put him on trial; and
(3) reintegration, which can be thought of in a broadly political as well as personal way.
Successive governments of Israel and the US have both, for many years now, been very permissive toward the idea of assassination. Assassination is frequently also called “extra-judicial execution” (EJE); it is good to focus on that adjective “extra-judicial.” Yes, it does mean that such killings are undertaken outside of any process that has any standing at all in international law. International law makes some provision for “hot pursuit” of opponents in a war-time setting. But the EJE’s that Israel and the US have pursued for some years now fall far short of the criteria for those kinds of killings.
Despite the clearly extra-judicial character of assassinations, President Bush and officials in his administration have gone further than any other western leader in using the discourse of “justice” to refer to them. Right after the Sept. 11 attacks, Bush (in)famously said, “Whether we bring our enemies to justice or bring justice to our enemies, justice will be done.” That second alternative there is particularly sneaky and bullying/aggressive, and is a direct abuse of the whole concept of justice.
In the aftermath of the Mughniyeh assassination, State Department spokesman Sean McCormack said, “One way or the other, he was brought to justice.”
The Israelis have used a policy of assassinations, in a relatively limited way, since as far back as the 1970s, when they killed a number of civilian, intellectual leaders in the PLO in retaliation for Black September’s killings of Israeli athletes at the Munich Olympics. Even at that time, they went through one renowned episode, in Norway in 1974, when they killed a Moroccan waiter after having mistakenly “identified” him as my one-time neighbor in Beirut, Ali Abu Hassan Salameh. They did kill Abu Hassan himself, along with some passersby, when they targeted him with a car-bomb in the street leading to my home, in 1979.
Later, within the Palestinian community they assassinated Yahya Ayyash and Fathi Shikaki in the mid-1990s. And prior to that, in Lebanon, they had killed Hizbullah leaders Ragheb Harb and Abbas Musawi. (See Uri Avnery’s devastating critique of the counter-productive nature of all those killings, here.)
In 1997, the Mossad tried to kill Khaled Meshaal with a chemical agent, in Jordan. But that was a devastating fiasco for the Netanyahu government, which ended up having to supply the antidote to the Jordanians and also to free Hamas’s spiritual mentor Sheikh Ahmed Yassin and tens of Hamas and other prisoners in order to win the safe return of the two Mossad (= Keystone Cops) operatives involved.
The US took up the policy of assassinations in a big way after 9/11. (Much earlier, of course, there had been numerous CIA and CIA-assisted assassination operations during the Cold War, including against Lumumba, Fidel Castro, and others.)
But the new policy that the Bush administration pursued after 9/11– “we’ll ‘bring justice to’ our enemies”– gave the Israelis very broad new permission to step up their use of ssassinations. The Palestinian Center for Human Rights records that between the start of the Second Intifada on 29 September, 2000 and 23 January, 2008 Israeli assassination operations had succeeded in “liquidating” a staggering total of 475 “targeted persons” along with 227 non-targeted civilians.
Among those snuffed out in this way were Sheikh Ahmed Yassin, Abdul-Aziz Rantisi, Saleh Shehadeh, and many others from Hamas’s leadership in Gaza. When Shehadeh was killed– with a heavy bomb dropped from the air– nearly two dozen members of his family, including many children, were also killed. On one occasion when they tried to kill Mahmoud Zahhar, he escaped but one of his sons was killed.
After the most recent killing of Mughniyeh, many westerners rejoiced. They seemed oblivious to two key aspects of the situation:
- (1) If past experience is anything to go by, this killing will only further stoke, rather than dampen, the determination of Hizbullah and its allies to confront western plans in the Middle East; and
(2) To cheer at any act of extra-judicial execution is to undermine the whole idea of the rule of law.
The figures on the ease with which today’s Israel has recourse to EJE’s should give everyone pause. There is absolutely no way they can claim that the “process” through which these targets are chosen is defensible. Extra-judicial executions are just that: extra-judicial; outside the purview of law and of civilization. An incident like the Mughniyeh killing does not change that.
Such incidents also, by the way, help ensure that the cycle of violence keeps on turning…