The western liberal’s capacity for self-flagellation is seemingly endless. There is no enemy that the liberal west did not create. There is no inhumanity that the west did not begin. There is no crime in which the west was not at some stage complicit.
The recent killing – murder, assassination, execution – of Osama bin Laden is a case in point. His self-proclaimed hatred of all the west stood for – from pornography to consumerism – made him an object of sympathy to a certain fringe in the west who hated these things too.
His medieval approach to women’s rights, his obsession with patriarchy, his peculiar reading of the Koran; these were mild complications in an otherwise legitimate world view.
Making war on the United States, irrespective of motive, made the attacker not all bad. In the cold war, pockets of western warmth for the USSR came less from a belief that its system worked than because it stood against the USA.
The appeal of Soviet communism was not nearly so powerful as the hatred of American capitalism – which explains why its fervour has endured far beyond the demise of the Politburo.
The same logic has been applied to al Qaeda. Sure, these were misguided young men but their hearts were in the right place. They saw that American military power had gotten too big for its boots and were right to confront it. Marxists who plaster their posters all over Australian university campuses have an similar position.
This fundamental sympathy has been invoked following the demise of bin Laden. Highly resistant to the claim that US military force is ever consistent with justice, the motive for and method of his ‘assassination’ is now being queried.
John Keane wrote in these pages a brilliant if problematic account of the arguments about bin Laden’s fate. It was not an arch-terrorist killed in Abbotabad, but “our inner democratic spirit.”
Keane’s work elsewhere is too sophisticated to earn a simple label. But his argument here does perpetuate a certain anti-American conception of international politics.
For Keane, the assassination of bin Laden reveals a hypocrisy now basic to US behaviour. Despite a history psychologically scarred and punctuated by the assassination of political leaders (Lincoln, Garfield, McKinley, John and Robert Kennedy, Martin Luther King, Malcolm X), Obama is seemingly content to pursue the practice abroad. Bin Laden, we may suppose, will be followed by Colonel Gaddafi.
Keane’s analysis is subtle but his conclusion a blunt one: no state as repulsed and traumatised by assassination as America can realise relief by visiting it upon foreigners.
It seems to me this is where the faux worldview of the anti-American left is offered a foundation. The hypocrisy of US power in employing extrajudicial killings in pursuit of the rule of law, in this particular instance, makes the war on terror – the cover and justification for those killings – immoral and worthy of challenge.
Professor Keane’s argument would make it difficult for America to prosecute any war, let alone what he derides as “the unending so-called ‘war on terror’”.
But, by both default and design, war is about political assassination. It is the targeted killing of people and the destruction of their property, this current war no less than any other.
If one could assassinate a single leader and in so doing avoid the murder of several thousand people would that be sufficient to justify assassination?
Consider how assassinating Hitler might have changed the course of World War II. Would acting on this decapitation imperative – to end the war sooner – have been a violation of “our democratic spirit”?
At Nuremberg, the western allies colluded with Stalin – a dictator busily murdering his opponents on a scale even Hitler could not manage – in the international legal prosecution of leading Nazis.
Did the attempted assassination of Adolf Hitler violate our democratic spirit more than the morally dubious war crimes trials of his lieutenants? Keane’s logic suggests yes. I am not persuaded.
Nor am I by the rather post-modern assertion that bin Laden is us. Because some Americans applauded his death – and, Keane implies, wallowed in the violence of it – they are as guilty of the “fetishised violence” that was bin Laden’s trademark. Cue the argument from moral relativism.
Keane is, of course, right to ascribe a deep-well of American angst over assassination as a tool of statecraft to the shooting of its greatest leaders (Lincoln, Kennedy, King). What is surprising perhaps, contra-Keane’s argument, is not the prevalence of political assassination in American foreign policy but its near absence.
The alleged fetishisation of violence in American culture has produced remarkably few foreign assassinations.
Consider America’s recent foes. Fidel Castro, despite some lame attempts to kill him, endures. Ho Chi Minh died in his bed. Saddam Hussein stayed in power for thirty-five years – and was ultimately executed by Iraqis.
Slobodan Milosevic died in a Dutch prison. Manuel Noriega lives in a French one. It took the CIA almost a decade to find bin Laden despite the apparent blood-lust of the American people in the aftermath of 9/11.
The targeted assassination of Gaddafi that began in 1986 has been adandoned by the US in the current war against him. It is the British and French and the “international community” that now plots his death.
Declaring yourself an enemy of American military power is almost guaranteed to make you immune from it. Bin Laden’s killing was an exception that proved this rule.