Assassinations and the Geneva Conventions: a matter of skin tone

Tom Flanagan, former senior adviser to Stephen Harper, regrets telling a CBC newscaster that US President Barack Obama "should put out a contract and maybe use a drone or something" to assassinate Wikileaks founder Julian Assange.

Tom Flanagan, former senior adviser to Stephen Harper, regrets telling a CBC newscaster that US President Barack Obama “should put out a contract and maybe use a drone or something” to assassinate Wikileaks founder Julian Assange.

He now dismisses the call to commit murder as “a thoughtless, glib remark about a serious subject.”

Glib and thoughtless the remark may have been, but it was outlandish only in one respect: Assange is a white man. To date, the Fourth Geneva Convention, which specifically prohibits targeted assassinations, still applies to persons of European origin, or as we were once known, Aryans. The prohibition has, however, been to all intents and purposes suspended in the case of Palestinians, Iraqis, Afghans and Yemenis, to name a few.

One of the leaked memos, for which Flanagan so despises Assange, reveals, or at least confirms US war planes have been targeting suspected al-Qaida members in Yemen, while the Yemeni military claims responsibility. The memo in question refers to three particular attacks.

The first occurred in December 2009, and did indeed kill 14 suspected militants. Forty-one civilians also died in that attack. Twenty-one of them were children. Casualty figures are not available for a similar attack on the same day. A third bombing, a few days later, killed 30 people. No one seems to know if these were all combatants, or not.

Assassination is a tempting tactic for those confronted with an intractable enemy. If, instead of invading Iraq and thus sentencing hundreds of thousands to death, the US could simply have murdered Saddam Hussein, who could complain? Once upon a time the answer to this was that such flagrant violations of international law invite retaliation. If the good guys can murder the bad guys, then why not vice versa?

In 2003, when 27 Israeli pilots publicly announced their refusal to conduct targeted bombings in densely populated areas of Gaza, they were roundly condemned by press and public alike. Never mind that the Geneva Conventions were written in an attempt to prevent Nazi-style atrocities from ever happening again, the Second Intifada, then in full swing, was responsible for the deaths of thousands of Israelis, and the targets of these bombings were known terrorists.

It is this collective fear, the self-preservation of a nation under attack, that permits otherwise civilized people to abandon the rule of law, at least so far as it concerns their enemies. It only took the World Trade Centre attacks to bring America to acceptance of an illegal war on Iraq, in which banned weapons were brought to bear on civilians, prisoners were tortured, and indeed the Geneva Conventions were tossed out the window, at least as they relate to radical Islamists, and anyone who looks like them.

Canada has been the target of only one major act of terror, the Air India bombing of 1985, and since it was an attack on brown people, committed by other brown people, it failed to stir the popular imagination in the way September 11th did. So far, our fear of terrorism is largely vicarious, which may explain what former CSIS director Jim Judd called our “Alice in Wonderland” view of international terrorism.

Judd’s remark was meant to imply that Canadians’ concern for the rule of law in international affairs is unrealistic, that the Geneva Conventions are for conventional warfare, and that unconventional means, such as torture, illegal detention, and assassination are to be expected in a conflict against insurgents, who obey no rules of warfare and can therefore expect no protection from those rules.

Joseph Goebbels couldn’t have put it better himself. During the early 1940s the Nazi war machine was constantly under attack by unconventional means. German soldiers were murdered by people who wore no uniforms, who sneaked around under cover of darkness and planted bombs, who melted back into the civilian population after an attack. How else to combat them but with mass arrests, torture, assassinations, and retaliation against civilians?

These things were atrocities then, and they are atrocities today, but somewhere along the way people have grown numb. Next time you hear that US drones or fighter jets have destroyed an al-Qaida compound in Yemen or Afghanistan, imagine this: imagine that Flanagan has his “glib” way, and President Obama orders a drone strike on Julian Assange.

Imagine that the villain is asleep in a Swedish fourplex housing unit. Along with Assange and a handful of whistle-blowing henchmen, 41 civilians lie bleeding to death in the rubble. Among them are 21 innocent, beautiful, blonde-haired, blue-eyed Swedish children.

OK, now imagine the children torn to pieces by the bombs, still innocent, still beautiful, but black-haired, dark-eyed, and brown-skinned. Does this diminish the crime?

Al Pope won the Ma Murray Award for Best Columnist in BC/Yukon in 2010 and 2002. His novel, Bad Latitudes, is available in bookstores.