In Defense of "Assassination"

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What if Timothy McVeigh had not been captured but had escaped to Mexico? What if Mexico had a virulently anti-American government dedicated to using any means to reclaim Texas? And what if McVeigh, under Mexican protection, was dispatching gunmen, suicide bombers and assorted terrorists to kill American civilians in U.S. border towns?

What would the U.S. do? Would it exercise "restraint," stay its hand, refuse to act lest it engage in a "cycle of violence"? Hardly. This hypothetical is not as hypothetical as it seems. Just three years ago, President Clinton ordered cruise-missile attacks on bases where Osama bin Laden, the terrorist believed to be behind the bombing of American embassies in Kenya and Tanzania (among other outrages), was said to be hiding. The obvious objective was to try to kill him. Or if that failed, to kill enough of those around him either to slow him down or deter his operation.

Yet now that Israel is facing the same threat--a virulent terrorist campaign operating out of Yasser Arafat's Palestine and directed against innocent Israeli civilians--the wrath of the world has descended upon Israel for daring to respond by "assassinating" those who are running the terrorist operation.

Terrorist groups acting openly under Arafat's protection proudly send young men into Israel to kill and maim. One suicide bomber murders 21 innocent youths at a Tel Aviv discotheque. Another chooses a Jerusalem pizzeria densely packed with young families, killing 15 and horribly maiming dozens of others with nails embedded in the bomb for precisely that purpose.

What is Israel to do? Israel has no great desire to go hunting terrorists. (The current media convention of calling these people militants is a travesty. If the word terrorism does not apply to sending a young man to blow up 21 kids outside a disco, what possible meaning can the term have?) Israel wanted these people arrested and jailed. That is why the Israeli government gave Arafat a list of the ringleaders.

How did Arafat respond? He's let them loose. Having launched a guerrilla war last year after rejecting Israel's Camp David peace offer, he has unleashed every weapon in his arsenal: drive-by shootings, mortars, snipers and a green light to suicide bombers. There is a war going on. Why would he deprive himself of his most murderous weapons?

Again: What is Israel to do? Arrest the terrorist leaders? Israel would have to invade Palestinian cities and kill hundreds of civilians along the way. The entire suggestion--serving terrorists with subpoenas--is ludicrous. What country in wartime tells its soldiers not to shoot back at those trying to kill them, but instead to cross enemy lines and try to apprehend them for trial?

Israel has responded the only way it can, and precisely as any other country would. When, in 1986, the U.S. found Libya responsible for a terrorist bombing that killed American soldiers in a Berlin discotheque, it did not send Muammar Gaddafi a subpoena. It bombed his barracks.

The object of such attacks is twofold. If you're lucky, you get the chief perpetrator. And if you're not, you have sent a message that the enemy cannot operate with impunity, bringing a measure of deterrence to his calculation.

Israel's counterterrorism campaign has already prevented several attempted suicide bombings. Of course, it cannot stop them all. But even one mass murder pre-empted is justification enough.

Israel was severely criticized when two boys were accidentally killed in a rocket attack on a Hamas building. That indeed was tragic. But no military campaign--not the NATO bombing of Serbia in the Kosovo war, not the U.S. bombing of Baghdad in the Gulf War, not the current Israeli attacks on Palestinian terrorists--has ever been conducted without accidental deaths. There is, moreover, an ocean of difference between a targeted attack on terrorists that inadvertently harms civilians and the deliberate murder of civilians, which is the specialty of the very Palestinian terrorists Israel is targeting.

On the other hand, there is not an iota of moral difference between sending a suicide bomber into Tel Aviv and Jerusalem to kill indiscriminately large numbers of innocent civilians and sending V-1 and V-2 missiles to terrorize London and Antwerp during World War II. Would anyone argue that it would have been wrong for the Allies to "assassinate" those Nazis who were producing, targeting and launching the V-1s and V-2s?

What country would not do as Israel is doing? How did Russia, guarantor of international norms as a charter member of the Security Council, respond to the bombing of apartment buildings in Moscow, allegedly by Chechen terrorists? By practically destroying Chechnya, razing its capital and killing thousands.

In contrast, Israel's response to unrelenting terrorism has been extraordinarily restrained, as precisely targeted at the guilty as possible. The abuse Israel has suffered for this scrupulous exercise of self-defense--in a war it did not start--is yet another example of the outrageous double standard applied to it by a cynical, complicit world.