The recent killing of Osama Bin Laden brought letters to the papers from writers sympathetic to Israel. Why, they asked, should world opinion applaud the killing of Bin Laden but criticize similar actions by the Israeli security services? This is a serious question (though misleading: many important people support Israeli actions, and those critical of Israel are more likely to have doubts about the killing of Bin Laden), deserving of an answer. I would like to take it further and ask, if shooting terrorists is not only justifiable but praiseworthy, why did the British government not adopt such tactics in its recent battles with the I.R.A.? It must be remembered that the I.R.A. not only killed a great many civilians as well as troops and police, but also planted the Brighton bomb in October 1984 that came within an ace of wiping out Margaret Thatcher and the entire British cabinet. Yet our government never attempted the assassination of Gerry Adams, Michael McGuinness and the other Republican leaders; neither did they follow the Israeli example by shelling the Bogside or sending hit-squads into Irish Republic. There are to my mind four reasons for this restraint:-
1. It was believed that such an action would be immoral
2. It was thought likely to be strategically counterproductive
3. The Americans wouldn't have approved
4. When all is said and done, Adams and co. were white men, not a bunch of nig-nogs, and were entitled to more civilised treatment
I have no idea which of these considerations was deemed the most important. Clearly none of them applied in the case of Israel or of Bin Laden. In any case, the alternative approach followed by the Britsh government in Northern Ireland proved successful for all concerned, since the Republican leaders are now happily serving in the government of the province, in coalition with their bitterest enemies the Democratic Unionists, and are quick to denounce any futher terrorist actions by their former pupils. The killers on both sides were released from prison, including those who planted the Brighton bomb.
Assassination, when you get down to it, is only a fancy word for the killing of someone important. It cannot be viewed as "justice" in any formal sense, because (as with all "vigilante justice") the same people act as prosecuting counsel, judge, jury and hangman, and there is no counsel for the defence. If we interpret "justice" in the abstract Platonic sense of everyone "getting their just deserts", it could well be argued that Bin Laden deserved to die. But the problem is, who is to decide what are someone's "just deserts"? It western society, this is not decided by friends and relatives of the accused person's victims. If someone dear to me was brutally murdered, I might well wish that the perpetrator should be boiled in oil: such a reaction could be understandable in human terms, but would have nothing to do with morality. I also take issue with those who quote the Old Testament on the theme of "An eye for an eye ..." Why do such people never mention that Jesus specifically denounced the whole concept?
If killing has to be done, assassination of key figures is undoubtedly far preferable to cruder methods of retaliation, such as bombing from the air. As far as I know, the British government has only once sponsored an assassination: that of Reinhard Heydrich, Himmler's deputy in charge of the S.S. and the Gestapo, who was successfully rubbed out in Prague in 1942. If any such killing was ever justifiable in moral terms, this one was. But it cannot be said that it served any useful strategic purpose whatsoever. The war continued, and the Holocaust was actually accelerated. Could this be an omen for the Bin Laden case? I am sure everyone hope not.