Don’t they wish they had listened to her!  Back in 2003, when the United States was planning to lead the invasion of Iraq, my elderly Welsh aunt was appalled by the prospect of war: “I hate all the violence.  I’m not an educated woman; I don’t understand politics.  I just hate to think of all those young men dying.  Why can’t we just send in the SAS to assassinate Sad­dam?”  Eight years later, my aunt’s words sound very wise indeed.  They may also be prophetic.  Whether or not we think it’s a good idea, assassination may be back in vogue.

Whenever the United States finds herself in a military confrontation around the world, a sizable chasm separates official policy from the expectations of ordinary people.  For people like my aunt, who grew up in the age of Hitler and Mussolini, the prospect of casually removing despots seems quite reasonable.  Just suppose that a tragically convenient accident had removed Saddam and his two equally evil sons before 2003.  Obviously, such an intervention would not have established democracy or human rights in Iraq, but neither did the actual invasion.  But the demonstrated ability to eliminate dictators sends a potent message to any successor regime, who would understand the immediate physical danger that potentially threatened them and their families.

The United States, of course, does not permit such actions, chiefly because of a well-considered stance that a democracy based on laws simply does not behave like this.  (Osama bin Laden was a freelancing terrorist chieftain, rather than the ruler of a state.)  Since the 1970’s, presidential executive orders have prohibited any U.S. involvement in targeted assassinations.  That explains why the United States through the years has dropped bombs around Muammar Qaddafi—but not, heaven forfend, directly on him—and why Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, Hugo Chávez, and Robert Mugabe continue hale and hearty.  No, any actions against these figures would have to be pursued by vast war efforts costing the lives of thousands of American soldiers and tens of thousands of local civilians, not to mention bringing the world closer to financial catastrophe and environmental ruin.  I for one rest easier knowing that we will pursue international goals through the systematic catastrophe of mass warfare rather than risking the moral taint of assassination.  Does the New Testament not remind us that it is expedient for a people to die for the sake of one man?

The assassination debate is long running, but technological change has now radically altered the political landscape.  To comprehend this new world, look at the recent saga over the so-called WikiLeaks, that vast release of supposedly secret U.S. documents, which has caused incalculable damage to U.S. interests worldwide, and endangered the lives of countless allies and supporters.  The U.S. government knew that such an outpouring was imminent but had no means to prevent it.  Even if they imposed all the legal injunctions available to courts, that would be of no avail in a world where information ignores borders.  Julian Assange, operator of WikiLeaks, might live in one country, with the relevant servers and backups in others.  Other than pleading vainly for restraint, all the United States could do last year was to warn its allies to expect the documents to be released on a given day, and to prepare accordingly.  Even if they had actively tried to suppress the information through technological means, the experts employed by governments and law-enforcement agencies are rarely any match for the electronic buccaneers and libertarian activists.  Governments cannot regulate information on the internet, and that fact raises alarming prospects for the future of organized political life.

We have now entered an age in which states have lost most of the traditional means of regulating technology and information beyond their borders, and they are unlikely to regain control.  The only remaining option, then, is to act against the individuals responsible for violating secrecy and state interests, whether or not such activities could ever be proved in court.  If governments can’t plumb leaks, they can certainly intimidate leakers.

Someday soon, a government will warn a future would-be Assange in roughly these terms: “We know that you are planning to release this information, and we can’t prevent that.  We will, however, ensure that you will not live to profit from your celebrity.  Your life depends on preventing this exposure.  If you are not responsible for the proposed leaks, then you have the technological skill to suppress them, and you absolutely have to do so.”  And at some point, threats will be carried through.

Please do not blame me for expressing bloodthirsty views: I would hate to see democratic governments act like this.  But if states have any alternative to targeting future electronic anarchists physically, I would love to know what they are.