Libertarianism and assassination – Nolan Chart LLC

Posted: January 25, 2020 at 2:01 pm

The targeted assassination of guilty people is ethically superior to war. The assassination-by-drone policy of the Trump regime is ethically bad for the same reason, and therefore morally wrong, and libertarians are right to condemn it.

Over at the Washington Examiner a great online site that promotes conservative, libertarian, and fusionist views inside the Beltway Philip Klein has an article on what at first glance looks like an inconsistency in libertarian thought.(1)

On the one hand, Klein writes, prominent libertarians of the past (including presidential candidates Ron Paul and Harry Browne) long advocated assassination as a better alternative to war.

On the other hand, Libertarians were among the most vocal critics of President Trumps decision to order the killing of Iranian terrorist leader Qassem Soleimani by drone assassination this month. Klein is clearly referring to, not constitutional objections about the lack of congressional authorization, but the normative or ethics-based substantive criticism of whether its a good idea to take out a prominent foreign leader the way the Trump administration did.

Klein is correct about both hands. But there is no inconsistency. A libertarian can consider assassination a better option than war not just better strategically, but also better ethically while condemning Soleimanis killing, and indeed the Trump regimes whole policy of assassination by drone, as being ethically unacceptable.

Not only are the two positions compatible, but they are consistent. Both follow from a fundamental libertarian principle: killing innocent people is ethically wrong.

By Kleins account, Browne relied on exactly that principle to make his case for assassination:

Browne, who was the Libertarian presidential nominee in 1996 and 2000, explicitly argued that the United States should offer a bounty on the heads of our enemies. In Why Government Doesnt Work, the manifesto for his 1996 campaign, he made the case against the first Iraq War for its toll on innocent victims. Assume Saddam Hussein really was a threat, he posited. Is that a reason to kill innocent people and expose thousands of Americans to danger? Isnt there a better way for a President to deal with a potential enemy?. He wrote: Would the President be condoning cold-blooded killing? Yes but of just one guilty person, rather than of the thousands of innocents who die in bombing raids.

Soleimanis funding and arming of terrorist groups like Hamas made him an enabler of terrorism. Since terrorists and their enablers kill innocent people, they themselves are not innocent people; therefore, killing them does not violate the prohibition on killing innocents. If a libertarian bystander at the airport where Soleimani died, or a sniper stationed a mile away, had shot the terrorist enabler, there would have been no violation of libertarian principles.

In contrast, a war with Iran would invariably involve the use of weapons of mass destruction (WMD). By WMD I mean weapons that are designed to kill indiscriminately: Bombs dropped on cities by airplanes (the predominant means by which the U.S. government wages war today) qualify as WMD under this definition. It is possible to use WMD without killing innocents in some cases such as bombing a military convoy in a desert but the odds of bombing a city without killing even one innocent (one child, for example) are astronomically low. This makes a targeted assassination clearly superior to the bombing campaigns that would inevitably occur in a war. If one can accomplish a goal X by two methods, A (which means killing innocents) and B (which avoids killing innocents), then B is the ethical alternative: B is exactly what a libertarian should do.

Similarly, when Paul called for issuing letters of marque and reprisal (a term he used to mean authorizing acts by both U.S. Special Operations troops and private contractors) against terrorist leader Osama Bin Laden, he

proposed a bill that would have allowed Congress to authorize the President to specifically target Bin Laden and his associates using non-government armed forces.

The words specifically target are all-important: Paul advocated targeted killing of specific individuals, on the grounds that they were terrorists who were guilty of shedding innocent blood. Paul did not advocate the killing of innocents, but the fatal use of force against certain non-innocents and no one else.

It is virtually impossible to stretch this libertarian idea of assassination to include killing by drones. Drones carry bombs, and bombs carried by drones are no less WMD than bombs dropped from airplanes. Their use is always ethically questionable, and they should be used only in cases where innocent blood is not spilled along with the guilty.

Were any innocent lives killed in the bombing attack that killed Soleimani? I dont know; I doubt that anyone knows. I do know, by listening to the Trump administrations statements on the killing, that they do not care: whether they killed innocent people was simply not a consideration for them. That alone is enough to make Soleimanis assassination objectionable to a libertarian. While the drone attack was ethically better than bombing an Iranian city, since it killed less innocent lives, and even possibly no innocent lives at all, being ethically better does not make it ethically good. It remains an ethically bad, or wrong, action, and the U.S. policy of drone assassination that led to it remains ethically bad, or wrong, policy.

Unfortunately, Klein touches on the use of drones and bombs only tangentially and not by name, and only to shrug it off with a But:

There are specific circumstances surrounding the Soleimani killing that may make it particularly objectionable to libertarians. But the idea of targeting bad actors as an alternative to large-scale bombing raids is not incompatible with noninterventionist foreign policy sentiments.

From the standpoint of libertarian principles (as opposed to noninterventionist sentiments), the targeted assassination of guilty people of those who have themselves shed innocent blood is ethically superior to war. At the same time, the assassination-by-drone policy of the Trump regime, and the Obama and Bush regimes, is ethically bad for the same reason, and therefore morally wrong and libertarians are right to condemn it.

(1) Philip Klein, Prominent libertarians once advocated assassination as an alternative to war, Washington Examiner, January 8, 2020. Web, Jan. 24, 2020. https://www.washingtonexaminer.com/opinion/prominent-libertarians-once-advocated-assassination-as-an-alternative-to-war

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Libertarianism and assassination - Nolan Chart LLC

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