Reading Art Caplan’s The Ethics of Assassination I can’t but remember the motto of Argentina’s Mothers and Grandmothers of Plaza de Mayo when referring to the assassins and torturers of their children and grandchildren. The motto is “Juicio y Castigo”, Trial and Punishment, within the boundaries of civil and penal law. Boundaries respected by them even after savage murder, kidnapping, torture and disappearance of thousands of people in the Argentine military dictatorship.
Caplan asks himself: “Do American values permit retribution for horrible crimes without worrying about due process?” And he answers “I think, in some instances, they do”. And he goes on saying “there is a place in just wars for killing, including those who lead organized combatants against us. Whether those heading organized efforts to wage war against us are military leaders, religious leaders or civilians, we are well within our rights to do whatever it takes to stop them.” “Killing Osama bin Laden is not unethical murder — it is the price organized terrorists who declare war against us must expect to pay.”
So, I asked myself: Could the Argentine military forces be seen as organized combatants? I think so. Did they commit horrible crimes against humanity? I’m sure of it. Could Mothers and Grandmothers of Plaza de Mayo call for the killing of the former government members, unarmed, in the middle of the night, in the presence of their families, as Bin Laden was? Perhaps they could, but they have chosen not to do so, as that would put them within the “ethical frame” of the dictators. Claiming instead for lawful trial and punishment draws a sharp ethical demarcatory line, and promotes civilized citizens and social behavior. Retribution for crimes against humanity cannot mean doing “whatever it takes”, specially if that exemplary “whatever it takes” comes from a supposed law abiding structure such as a government, and –for the case- from a government that makes yearly Reports on Human Rights across the world. The “whateverittakes” philosophy has sustained gross human rights violations in the history of humankind.
Arthur Caplan is a well-known bioethicist and a key opinion leader in his country and, as such, he has a responsibility to discern between his feelings as an American exceptionalist (the world should do what we say but we do as we please) and the reasoning needed from a world-class bioethicist. Exceptionalism, be it exemptionalism, double standards, or legal isolationism, as Michael Ignatieff divides it, arises from a deeply entrenched superiority feeling mixed with practical impunity. Even as it implies a parochial and aporetic universalistic particularism, Caplan doesn’t feel necessary to elaborate about it.
Finally, as a Latin American, I cannot but feel disgusted by Caplan’s western-film-like bravado that to be killed “is the price organized terrorists who declare war against us must expect to pay”, as for sure the definition of a terrorist and of war will be submitted to the murky criteria of the Department of Defense, as occurred with the sliding definition of torture, genially called “harsh interrogatory”, even by some authors in the bioethical field. After a long history of bloody North American interventions in Latin America, either by way of direct military invasion or through CIA orchestrated coups, I am sure that there are serious differences between what we call a patriota (patriot) luchador por la libertad (freedom fighter), and what the DoD could denominate an AntiAmerican terrorist. After the bloodshed of American invasion of Iraq for the sake of non-existent massive destruction weapons, for instance, I could well understand an Iraqi referring to North Americans as “organized terrorists”. Nevertheless I wouldn’t agree with the assassination of the President of the United States of America, and I wouldn’t defend it as an ethical accomplishment, as I think that Juicio y Castigo (Trial and Punishment) is the civilized way to deal with heinous murderers, as the Mothers and Grandmothers of Plaza de Mayo have shown to the world.