Tuesday, June 14, 2011


Foreign Policy has an article discussing the legality of targeting Qaddafi, begging the question: why aren't leaders targeted more frequently?

The article shrewdly points out that no leader is particularly interested in crossing that line, leading, as it would, to reprisals and increasing the threat felt by all leaders. But pop culture and entertainment (and, depending on how far into conspiracy theories one ventures, history) is full of stories of shadowy organizations and figures who play the game of diplomacy using rather direct measures. The term 'assassin' itself is derived from the Arabic term hashishi, roughly translated to 'rabble'. It was adopted to describe the first group of assassins, famously lead by Hasan-i Sabbah, or The Old Man of the Mountain.

This initial group of assassins were soon snuffed out by their enemies, though legend suggests they lived on in a more fractured organizational structure. Veracity of such tales notwithstanding, modern terrorism shares more than a passing resemblance to the theory of assassination as a tool of diplomacy. It is direct, it is largely leaderless, and it is clandestine. However, whereas the original assassins focused their efforts on specific actors and situations, modern terrorism is largely used to give voice to more general complaints. It is used to highlight ideological divisions and general policies.

In addition, modern terrorism brings with it the collateral damage for which it is so reviled. Sometimes the innocent bystanders are understood to be unfortunate casualties and sometimes the splash damage is the intended product. But, while still maintaining its foundational similarities to assassination, terrorism's tactics underscore a fundamental difference in its practitioners' understanding of power. Namely: power does not reside with an individual figure but rather in the state which he/she governs.

This understanding of power can be traced back to the Treaty of Westphalia of 1648, at least in western thought. The concept of sovereignty and the state as the primary actor in international relations diminished the role of individual leaders. While the democratic institutions that gave voice to the populace were still 100 years away, the state was understood to be a collection of like-minded people, tied together by a common nationality and, and this is the big diplomatic leap, common international desires. The actual leaders of these nation-states were figureheads, if not democratically representative, than at least culturally so. Assassinating one of these leaders would simply result in another, similar leader taking over power.

This is not to say that assassinations and assassination attempts decreased in the ensuing centuries. However, it is to say that these assassinations were less the product of clearly defined policy interests and more the product of emotional outcries. Assassination as a tool used to shape international relations gradually disappeared, leaving us with the international diplomatic situation we see today. War, not assassination, is diplomacy by other means. Terrorism is assassination by other means. The primacy of the individual is so reduced as to be thought of as unimportant.

Which, of course, means that our 'diplomacy by other means' invariably involves far more bloodshed and destruction than it otherwise would if the individual still was considered a valid target. We need to destroy the 'state' which includes the people, the infrastructure, the landscape.

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