There is an interesting discussion in the comment thread to my post on Pat Robertson's comments about Hugo Chavez in which some folks are debating the Christian morality of war versus assassination. I've directed those folks to Marvin Olasky's thoughtful op-ed on the subject, but I wanted to flag it as potentially being of general interest.
The televangelist should have remembered Spiderman's message that "with great power comes great responsibility." By his blurting, Robertson aided Venezuelan autocrats such as Vice President Jose Vicente Rangel, who sarcastically said that assassination advocacy was "very Christian" and went on to argue that "religious fundamentalism is one of the great problems facing humanity." ...
... it's hard to see either general or specific biblical warrant for his fatwa. In general, as Paul wrote to Timothy, Christians are to pray "for all people, for kings and all who are in high positions."
Hugo Chavez is an evil tyrant, but so were many Roman emperors -- and Paul told Romans to "bless those who persecute you. ... Repay no one evil for evil, but give thought to do what is honorable in the sight of all." Last time I looked, "assassin" was not on the general list of honorable callings. Wartime is different, but last time I looked, we weren't at war with Venezuela.
Applying Old Testament history to current politics is sometimes exegetically tricky, but the wartime assassinations in Judges 3 and 4 - - Jael hammering a tent peg into Sisera's brain, Ehud the left-handed man thrusting his sword into the fat belly of the king of Moab -- also do not provide warrant for taking out Hugo Chavez. Nor do any of Christ's words or deeds suggest a WWJA (Who Would Jesus Assassinate?) list.
... God is the God of history. He raises up leaders and strikes them down. The Christian goal is to follow biblical principles, including "just war" ones, and not to create new orders. Christians who are careless bring dishonor to God's name by making many believe there is no difference between the pre-eminent religion of peace and the many religions of violence.
Olasky's comments suggest that the right inquiry would be to ask whether just war theory justifies assassinations. I'm going to ask a friend of mine who specializes in the law of force to opine on that question, but here's some preliminary thoughts.
First, here's an analysis arguing that assassination of political leaders during wartime is not inconsistent with just war theory.
... what if the leaders are removed from the area of hostilities? Are they fair game? International law says they are. Therefore, the idea of assassination being morally wrong loses all meaning during war because the political leaders are legitimate targets. The moral equivalency of the "assassin" is the same as that of the coalition soldier fighting in the desert. It is the dysfunctional agreement during war: both sides try to kill the other side's forces, including the leaders.
I assume from Olasky's apparently careful phrasing that he would agree. On the other hand, however, here is a source positing that some will question that claim:
Political leaders such as Saddam Hussein or Fidel Castro, some have argued, are different: they are not obviously combatants, even where he has ultimate control over the military. Similar difficult questions concern countries where the commander of the military is a civilian, as in the United States. The question is of course further complicated by the problem of assigning combatant status at all when there is not a state of war, especially as regards the problem of terrorism, which takes place in what William Banks calls the "twilight zone between war and peace" (671).
Even if just war theory would permit assassination of enemy leaders during wartime, does it follow that it permits peacetime assassinations of the leader of a state with whom we are not at war? The second source cited above opines:
... it appears that the policy of assassination or targeted killing, though it may be morally legitimate in certain limited circumstances, must in general be considered impermissible under the Just War Doctrine. The principle of respect for human life does not in general allow premeditated, extrajudicial killings of specific individuals. Only in urgent situations or extreme circumstances, where there is no other means to avoid a given imminent harm, can assassinations be permitted. And to the extent the target is a political rather than a military leader, the presumption against assassination must be even stronger.
Presumably, those presumptions would have even more force in peace than in war, or at least I infer that Olasky would so conclude.
On the other hand, as Eugene Volokh notes, albeit without specific reference to the just war tradition, perhaps assassination would be licit as an alternative to war. As such, of course, the assassination would have to satisfy the core precepts of a just war (I've taken the list of element of Catholic just war from this source):
- Just cause. War is permissible only to confront "a real and certain danger," i.e., to protect innocent life, to preserve conditions necessary for decent human existence and to secure basic human rights.
- Competent authority. War must be declared by those with responsibility for public order, not by private groups or individuals.
- Comparative justice. In essence: Which side is sufficiently "right" in a dispute, and are the values at stake critical enough to override the presumption against war? Do the rights and values involved justify killing? Given techniques of propaganda and the ease with which nations and individuals either assume or delude themselves into believing that God or right is clearly on their side, the test of comparative justice may be extremely difficult to apply.
- Right intention. War can be legitimately intended only for the reasons set forth above as a just cause.
- Last resort. For resort to war to be justified, all peaceful alternatives must have been exhausted.
- Probability of success. This is a difficult criterion to apply, but its purpose is to prevent irrational resort to force or hopeless resistance when the outcome of either will clearly be disproportionate or futile.
- Proportionality. This means that the damage to be inflicted and the costs incurred by war must be proportionate to the good expected by taking up arms.
As applied to Chavez, the analysis presumably would run as follows:
Just cause. What is the "real and certain danger"? As far as I can tell, Chavez is no saint, but there does not yet seem to be any real threat to innocent life or basic human rights.
Competent authority. Note that the competent authority here, namely the President, is bound by (although presumably could exempt himself from) executive orders banning assassination of foreign leaders.
Comparative justice. It's hardly clear that Chavez has done anything to us or his own people to justify an intentional extra-judicial targeted killing.
Right intention. Again, what's the just cause?
Last resort. We barely seem to be engaged with Chavez these days, let alone exhausting all alternatives to war.
Probability of success. Who knows? But they tried to kill Castro for years with often humorous failure to show for it.
Proportionality. Again, what has Chavez done that would justify taking him out?
In sum, even if assassination can sometimes be justified either in the context of or as an alternative to just war, it hardly seems that the Chavez case rises to the necessary level.
Hence, I agree with Olasky that Robertson has been irresponsible and even unChristian in his comments.