Wednesday, February 24, 2010

LA Times Gives Dubai Assassination Quick Hits

I almost missed the pun ... I assure you, it's unintended.

The LA Times has a mini-symposium on the legality and morality of the Dubai assassination of a top Hamas leader (presumed, but not proven, to be done by Israel). It's very interesting reading.

With a bit of critical distance from my initial reaction, I think my view on the matter is changing slightly. What I wrote then, and what I still believe, is that within the facial framework by which Israel is being evaluated upon, this assassination was an unqualified success: one terrorist eliminated, no civilian casualties, no civilian hardship. It's also not particularly scalable, which is why it's unreasonable to base an entire security apparatus around it. But more importantly, it's somewhat annoying to see folks who last year were holding Israel to unreasonable standards regarding the degree of care it had to take regarding civilian casualties being equally aggrieved by this operation. It really feeds into my broader intuition that -- no matter what they protest -- the real objection is Israel doing anything to defend itself at all.

That being said, I do think there are perfectly legitimate concerns about undertaking these operations. The sovereignty violation bothers me. The passport theft bothers me even more. And that doesn't get into the diplomatic hellstorm that develops when you forge passports from your nominal allies. Bradley Burston's frustration is not unwarranted.

What I think is really going on here is the continued dearth of sophisticated visions regarding what a progressive, human rights oriented law of war should look like in the era of terrorism and counter-insurgency. Instead, we have visceral reactions tinted by our pre-conceptualizations of what (and who) constitutes good and evil, and then build out principles to match. And lo and behold, such an approach doesn't create optimal incentives. But when we keep changing the rules in midgame, it can't come as a surprise when people begin to suggest there are no rules at all. And that, unsurprisingly, is even worse.


chingona said...

Your post is mostly focused on the legal issues, but I think there's another factor out there to consider in whether this assassination was a good idea or not. So the guy they got was a bad guy over whom we won't shed many tears. But was he bad enough and significant enough to be worth the diplomatic fallout, both in the Gulf states, which have made some effort to position themselves as brokers and who have no love for Hamas, and among allies who feel burned by the passport theft?

And I don't know the answer to that question, but it's one more thing to think about. You might decide a killing is justified and can be pulled off, but it might still not be smart.

David Schraub said...

I definitely agree about the need to distinguish right/wrong from smart/stupid. And that's what I get at towards the end with the discussion centering around Mr. Burston's article. I'm not convinced this assassination was wise, and I was trying to explain how that view coheres with the previously iterated view expressing how this assassination is taking an odd amount of moral criticism given how it fits into the framework we say we want Israel to subscribe to.

joe said...

I have no idea wheterh this was a good or bad idea, but bad ideas are inherently immoral because they lead to worse outcomes.

chingona said...

I just haven't seen that much stuff condemning Israel just for killing this guy. I'm not saying it's not out there, but most of the discussion I've seen has been more analytical - how will the fall out from this affect this or that and in that context, was this really a good idea?

So I'm not saying that you're unaware or don't care about the non-legal aspects of this, but I think you have to factor that into why this attack has been criticized and I think it's a larger factor in the criticism than holding Israel to a special standard.

Matthew C said...

"I have no idea whether this was a good or bad idea, but bad ideas are inherently immoral because they lead to worse outcomes."

Paging Mr. Bentham? Actually, I don't even know any strict utilitarians who would defend this. And I've known some strict utilitarians in my day, lemmetellya!

joe said...

Strict utilitarians (and this wouldn't be the first time I've been called one) almost have to believe something like this by definition.

But let's put it another way. Negligence (i.e. failing to take proper care when you should know better) has a moral dimension, right? If you throw caution to the wind and damn the consequences you can't act too surprised when someone (or in this case, ultimately some of the wrong people) gets hurt. Now, it's tough for me at least to distinguish what you might consider a mere "bad idea" from negligence, so there you go.

So I'm being less of a devil's advocate here than you you might think.

Matthew C said...

I find it completely counter-intuitive that a "bad idea" can't include one motivated by ignorance. Certainly, I think policymakers have some obligation to inform themselves, but that can only be an imperfect obligation. No one can be aware of every potential variable in a decision, or of every outcome of their actions (this is what Arendt calls the "non-sovereign" character of action). In the category of "immoral" we'd have willful harm as well as instances where reasonable efforts to pursue better information were not taken. "Bad ideas" certainly include those,but quite a lot of others. In short, immoral ideas are all bad, but not everything that turns out to be a bad ideas can be called immoral.

On your account, a teenager who accidentally sets his law on fire with a carelessly flicked cigarette isn't just stupid, but an arsonist.

lower-case joe said...

It's not about perfect foresight, but about exercising best judgment regarding probable outcomes. Your teenager might not be as morally culpable as if he carelessly flicked a cigarette near a puddle of gasoline (let alone as if he intended arson) but he's certainly not blameless in the sense of "should know better."