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Thursday, Sept. 1, 2005 08:51 am

Killing our enemies

Where do we begin? When do we stop?


Like most people, I reacted with revulsion, not shock, to evangelist Pat Robertson’s suggestion that we assassinate Venezuela’s president. Robertson, after all, has a record of saying things that thoughtful folks wouldn’t.

That’s why he’s largely ignored — most media organizations tune out the rants of TV preachers and most talk-show hosts. In this case, however, Robertson became the latest man to bite a dog, so his comments became news.

We don’t expect founders of Christian groups to tell us to ignore one of the Commandments. That’s like hearing about law-and-order talk-show hosts who score drugs illegally or preachers who have children out of wedlock.

And yet, before we move on to the next national hypocrite, let’s thank Pat Robertson for raising important matters.

First, Robertson managed to turn our attention, at least briefly, to a nation in our own back yard.

Robertson’s riff on President Hugo Chávez comes as the Bush administration exerts heavy pressure on Venezuela. Chávez, the democratically elected president of the oil-rich nation, has complained that he is a target of U.S. efforts to destabilize and overthrow his government — and, given our record in Central and South America, it’s hard not to take him seriously. Chávez, you may recall, was briefly dislodged a couple of years ago by a coup that had our government’s support.

Our actions in Venezuela should provide an honest gauge of whether our government really does, as President George W. Bush avers, embrace the “global spread of democracy.”

Second, Robertson deserves thanks for speaking candidly about how to go about the business of dealing with our “enemies,” because, as it became quickly apparent, his views — no matter how ill-considered they seemed — are consistent with those held by many Americans.

And about that we need to have a frank national discussion. For too long now killing has been seen as an appropriate foreign-policy response — and it hasn’t mattered whether the administration is Republican or Democrat.

For example, in 1998, after two of our embassies were attacked, President Bill Clinton ordered retaliatory cruise-missile strikes on Osama bin Laden’s camps in Afghanistan and a purported chemical-weapons plant in Sudan. Dozens of people were killed and injured. Clinton’s people said that the U.S. had dealt a serious blow to bin Laden’s organization. They were wrong.

Back then, most of us were focused on the president’s dalliance with an intern, few of us weighed the consequences of the escalation of hostilities, and none of us expected what came three years later. “The battle has not yet started,” a bin Laden spokesman promised in 1998. He, unfortunately, was right.

People who subscribe to Robertson’s view of the world would argue that had we killed bin Laden in 1998, 9/11 wouldn’t have happened. These are the same people who think that we could have remade Iraq by killing Saddam Hussein, prevented the genocide in Cambodia by killing Pol Pot, or ended World War II by killing Adolf Hitler.

This business about killing foreign leaders bubbled up a generation ago, when a Congressional committee confirmed that the Central Intelligence Agency planned, or was involved in, attempts to kill foreign leaders, including Patrice Lumumba of Congo, Rafael Trujillo of the Dominican Republic, Ngo Dinh Diem of South Vietnam, and Sukarno of Indonesia. Most Americans were horrified and ashamed, and, in 1976, President Gerald Ford, a Republican, issued an executive order banning assassinations by U.S. agencies.

It’s worth noting that in each of these cases in which there was a successful assassination, instability and repression followed.

But we’re a nation that forgets. Last week, a prominent American preacher said that it would make sense for his country to “take out” Chávez rather than become embroiled in another Iraq-type war. “I don’t know about this doctrine of assassination, but if he thinks we’re trying to assassinate him, I think that we really ought to go ahead and do it,” Robertson told his viewers. “It’s a whole lot cheaper than starting a war. . . . ”

Sure, killing just one person instead of many does seem easier, does seem less expensive.  Problem is, it’s never just one.

The argument pushed by people such as Robertson presumes that the list of people whose values are at odds with our national interests is a finite one. The reality is, there are many such lists, and they vary, depending on who does the compiling. Pat Robertson’s name, for example, would be on mine. Would ridding the world of all of these people make our country any stronger?

Like Robertson, I don’t know about this “doctrine of assassination,” but I think it’s time we talk about new ways of dealing with our enemies.

We can’t kill them all.

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