Richard Reeves

Time to Get Back Into the Assassination Business?

WASHINGTON -- In case there was any doubt that the tough guys are back in charge in Washington, some of the new unilateralists making American policy these days seem to want to get us officially back into the assassination business. After all, we tried to get Fidel Castro 17 separate times in the 1960s; maybe it's time to try again.

What is the worst that could happen? The targets could become the hunters and kill our leader in Dallas or someplace? Hard to imagine that, huh -- some pipsqueak getting to the most powerful man in the world.

OK, here's the plan! We spend as much as it takes and try to build a foolproof missile defense shield in the sky to protect us from other countries. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld is handling that one. Then we search out individuals who might be inclined to harm one or more of us -- and we kill them. Rep. Bob Barr of Georgia is stepping up to that one, and he seems to be doing it on White House orders or suggestion.

Barr, who wanted to take out President Clinton last year, has other targets in his sights this time. On Jan. 3, he introduced HR 19, "The Terrorist Elimination Act of 2001." It is a bill, in its own words, "to nullify the effect of certain provisions of various Executive Orders." More specifically: Section 5g of Executive Order 1905; Section 2-305 of Executive Order 12036; Section 2-11 of Executive Order 12333.

Let's take that last one, 12333, signed by President Reagan on Dec. 4, 1981. It reads: "No person employed by or acting on behalf of the United States government shall engage in, or conspire to engage in, assassination." The others say the same thing in different language with different signatures.

In Barr's bill he presents several "findings," including these:

"Past presidents have issued executive orders which severely limit the use of the military when dealing with certain threats. ... These orders severely limit the swift, sure and precise action needed to protect our national security. Present strategy allows the military forces to bomb large targets hoping to eliminate a terrorist leader, but prevents our country from designing a limited action which would specifically accomplish that purpose. ... As the threat from terrorists grows, America must continue to investigate effective ways to combat the menace posed by those who would murder American citizens simply to make a political point."

Assuming we are not actually sponsoring or abetting assassination these days, there is something very odd about a bill purporting to edit executive orders -- because it takes an executive order to nullify or otherwise change one. So Barr's bill seems to be designed as a way for President Bush to endorse assassination in response to the will of the people, or at least of crazy people in Congress.

And, make no mistake, assassination is a crazy business for a superpower. The United States obviously has the military capability to extend our power in almost any way anywhere in the world. It is nuts for us to bring hostilities down to the level of one man with a rifle -- that makes every country or man a superpower. And, remembering what happened in Dallas in 1963, the leaders of open societies are more vulnerable to a man with a rifle than dictators and other bad guys.

Beyond that, and setting aside arguments on the morality of official murder, the great problem with assassination is the impossibility of knowing what events it will trigger. To take the strongest argument for killing the bad guy, what would have happened if Hitler had been assassinated early in World War II? With the madman gone, perhaps saner German military leaders would have won the whole thing, or worked out a way to divide the world with the Soviet Union and imperial Japan. Who knows?

Strange things are happening here. Congressman Barr is just a fool, but if he is running errands for new unilateralists who believe in our country right or wrong, these could be dangerous times, not for our enemies but for ourselves.

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