Assassinating political opponents has a long historical background. So long, in fact, that one of the ways we separate the modern from the pre-modern is the notion of elections as a means of determining rulers or courts of law as a means to deal with violations of accepted norms. Although the beheading of King Charles I of England in 1649 is considered the beginning of modern politics, this was only so because it meant the privileging of the Parliament over the absolute monarchy and followed a legal trial for tyranny. Modern politics is supposed to be beyond beheadings; the International Commission Against the Death Penalty (ICDP), which is against all legal executions, last week opened its offices in Geneva.
How are we to understand the recent killings of Moammar Gaddafi, Anwar Awlaki and Osama Bin Laden in this context? You will certainly want separate explanations for each. Bin Laden, it is said, had attacked the United States and was plotting further attacks. Capture and trial were not possible, it was stated, given where he was and the immediacy of ending his potential terrorist capabilities. Awalaki also had attacked the United States in different ways and, although an American citizen, was thought to be a dangerous enemy in a country - Yemen - where it would have been impossible for him to be properly captured and brought to trial. Gaddafi was a tyrant whose death was cathartic for an entire population; no trial meant that the 42 years of dictatorial rule ended quickly. At his death, there were celebrations throughout Libya although the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights has asked for greater clarification about the circumstances surrounding his demise. The videos are gruesome; the displaying of his body in a refrigerated meat container a rejection of any form of human dignity no matter what he had done. We should expect more from those who overthrew him.
The Arab Spring gave enormous hope throughout the region. Autocratic if not despotic rulers were replaced in Egypt, Tunisia and now Libya. Calls for empowerment have filled the streets. Elections are being held in Tunisia. Democracy is the rallying cry of the disenfranchised. But what does democracy mean if not the rule of law? When the young 13 colonies in the New World defeated the British, they offered their leader, George Washington, the possibility of being King. He refused, recognizing that the break with the monarchical past must be complete; the Revolutionary War for Washington meant a true revolution, a radical change from traditional practices.
If cries for democracy are ringing throughout the world, then there should also be cries for the rule of law; one includes the other. Political assassinations should be a thing of the past. Although we may rejoice at the end of a dictator's rule, we should not rejoice at seeing a bloody body being dragged through the street or put on display. If it is heroic to take up arms to fight for democracy, it is equally heroic to fight for the rule of law at times of emotional outbursts. Neither expediency nor vengeance is an excuse for the primitive "Chop off their heads". And that goes for so-called advanced democracies as well.
October 26, 2011