Thursday, February 22, 2007

On defending the indefensible

For those of you who have the good fortune of not knowing about Glenn Reynolds a.k.a. Instapundit (and his very high-traffic rightwing blog) are probably also unaware of his recent statement. Oh yes, he's also a law professor at the University of Tennessee.
We should be responding quietly, killing radical mullahs and iranian atomic scientists, supporting the simmering insurgencies within Iran, putting the mullahs' expat business interests out of business, etc. Basically, stepping on the Iranians' toes hard enough to make them reconsider their not-so-covert war against us in Iraq. And we should have been doing this since the summer 2003.
Many people have responded to this post which is, alas, not atypical of Reynolds' spew. One of my favorites is this one by a more principled and law-abiding law professor from the University of Colorado Law School, Professor Paul Campos, who wrote an op-ed in the Rocky Mountain News.

As Glenn Greenwald tells us:
Reynolds replied to Campos' column three separate times, each time with increasing shrillness, dishonesty, and name-calling -- first on his blog, then in a guest column in The Rocky Mountain News, and then again yesterday on his blog. He also repeatedly linked to multiple right-wing bloggers engaged in all sorts of name-calling attacks on Professor Campos. This morning, Professor Campos e-mailed me and asked if he could post his response to Reynolds on this blog, and I happily agreed. Following is Professor Campos' reply:

Glenn Reynolds' response to my column suggesting that it might strike some people as odd that a law professor is using lies to advocate murder is a classic of the genre: the genre in question being the unhinged polemic disguised as pseudo-academic discourse (It was Reynolds' proclivity for this sort of thing that led me to point out the extent to which Reynolds and his ilk are right-wing versions of the infamous Ward Churchill -- the difference being that you'll never find Churchill within a thousand miles of any mainstream liberal or Democratic party figure, while Reynolds somehow remains the soul of Republican respectability).

One could linger over such symptomatic features as the pompous neologism ("beclowned") deployed as a substitute for argument; the assumption that scholarly expertise can be acquired by a ten-minute Google search; the subsequent citation of "authorities" of whose existence the author was unaware ten minutes earlier; or the inevitable if rather surreal violation of Godwin's Law (we bombed the Nazis so what's wrong with assassinating Iranian civilians?). But let's stick to Reynolds' substantive claims, such as they are.

First, Reynolds argues there are circumstances under which government-sponsored assassination is both legal and morally defensible. Yet whatever merits that general claim might have, it has nothing to do with the legality and mortality of Reynolds' specific recommendation that the United States government should be "quietly" assassinating Iranian mullahs and atomic scientists, today if not sooner. Obviously there is a world of difference between speculating on whether it would have made sense to assassinate, say, Saddam Hussein, or the Iranian head of state (presumably at some time when we weren't funneling arms to them), and advocating the assassination of civilian research scientists.

As for Reynolds' claim that killing scientists wouldn't be murder because it's only against the law until the law is changed, what can one say? Lawyers' claims to find a statement shocking often sound a lot like Capt. Renault claiming to be shocked to discover there's gambling in Casablanca, but I'm not saying this rhetorically: It's shocking that a professor of law would dare make such a despicable argument in print. In fact assassinations are currently prohibited by law -- something Reynolds cannot of course dispute -- and the law would have to be changed before what Reynolds says our government should be doing at the present moment could even arguably begin to be considered legal.

Sensing, perhaps, that he's saying something too ridiculous for his audience to swallow, Reynolds starts arguing in the alternative, by claiming that assassinating research scientists isn't really assassination. His basis for this is the argument that when research scientists are present at legitimate military targets, their deaths from lawful military attacks on those targets aren't assassinations. But this is about as relevant to his original argument as the claim that scientists who die from lung cancer because they smoked a lot haven't been assassinated. Remember, Reynolds argued originally that we should be "quietly" terminating research scientists with extreme prejudice, and that this was preferable to, for example, bombing Iranian military installations. Yet the examples he gives of the legitimate killing of scientists all require precisely the course of action he claims his assassination scheme is designed to prevent.

Reynolds' idea of a response to the fact that his scheme to "quietly" assassinate research scientists is an egregious violation of international law is to point out that a Reagan administration lawyer once said it was OK to try to drop a bomb on Moamar Quaddafi. If this is Reynolds' idea of persuasive legal reasoning, how does he justify ever giving one of his students a poor grade?

That war is sometimes necessary doesn't make it any less hideous. Yet it's made even more hideous when nations make no effort to comply with the laws of war. Assassinating a research scientist is no more permissible under the laws of war than shaking the hand of an off-duty out-of-uniform soldier having a meal in a restaurant, hundreds of miles from a battlefield, and then shooting him in the head.

None of this has even touched on the fact that Reynolds' central claims, upon which his whole argument hinges, are false. The United States isn't at war with Iran, and the Iranian regime has never threatened to use nuclear weapons against our nation. My column emphasized these points, and in doing so essentially called Reynolds a liar. Yet he hasn't even bothered to try to refute that charge -- for the simple reason that he can't.

And, since others have already done so, I won't bother to elaborate on why Reynolds' scheme, even if a respectable argument for its supposed legality could be found, is as a purely practical matter pretty much insane.

A final note: My column suggested that, given the support of people like Reynolds and Hugh Hewitt for disciplinary action against Ward Churchill, it wouldn't be untoward to inquire if the University of Tennessee's employment policies require unlimited toleration of, for example, a law professor who uses lies to justify murder. Again, this isn't a rhetorical question: it genuinely interests me. Obviously, academic freedom isn't unlimited. No one, I presume, would defend a professor's "right" to, for instance, verbally abuse students with racial slurs, or to appropriate the work of others without proper citation, and so forth. And I certainly respect the views of people like Glenn Greenwald and Scott Lemieux, who if I understand them correctly go very far toward arguing that no expression of opinion per se should ever be a basis for the sanctioning of an academic. How far I myself would go in that direction is something on which, not being an administrator, I can afford to keep an open mind.

In the end, of course, it's up to the University of Tennessee to decide whether the spectacle of a law professor using lies to justify murder is something of which they should deign take notice. In any case, that spectacle serves as a cautionary tale to the rest of us -- of just how far it's possible to sink in the defense of the indefensible.

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