There’s an interesting scene in the movie The Dark Knight in which the Joker confronts Harvey Dent in the hospital, and conveys to him what he sees as the misplaced and irrational prioritization of alarm among human populations. The scene is wonderful for many reasons—it’s well-written, well-directed, and brilliantly acted—but I think it is also conveys an important point about which many of us don’t think carefully enough.
In the scene, the Joker says that he’s noticed that “nobody panics when things go ‘according to plan’. Even if the plan is horrifying.” He then adds, “If tomorrow I tell the press that, like, a gang-banger will get shot, or a truckload of soldiers will be blowing up, nobody panics, because it’s all ‘part of the plan’. But when I say that one little old mayor will die, well then everyone loses their minds!”
This is a deeply important point, because it highlights a profound illogic in our moral prioritization of who is important, who is to be protected, who is an “acceptable loss”, and who is “hands off.” We become more outraged—or at least more exercised—when one of our “leaders” is threatened or even killed than when soldiers, or even ordinary citizens, are put in jeopardy. This is not morally defensible.
To borrow the terminology of The Godfather (a great movie, and an even better book), mayors, presidents, and other leaders are part of “the muscle end of the family”. When the Turk captures Tom Hagen early in The Godfather, he tells him that he need not worry for his safety, because the Turk knows that Tom isn’t in “the muscle end of the family”. In other words, he’s not a soldier, and thus isn’t a usual, acceptable target within that culture’s hierarchy of ethical behavior…such as it is. This assessment seems to mirror our moral attitude toward “leaders” in the real world, and yet the reasoning for their separation from legitimacy as targets of violence is not only irrational, but may even encourage greater violence in both the short and long run.
As Michael Corleone slyly points out to Kay later in the movie (and possibly in the book, I can’t recall right now) “Presidents and Senators” do in fact “have men killed”. It would make much greater moral sense if we all recognized that our representatives, our “leaders”, are indeed part of the muscle end of the family—and if they recognized themselves as such—and thus are legitimate targets. After all, though an individual soldier, or police officer, may be the one carrying and using a weapon, he* is acting out the policies of those who have hired him* to do his job. He is, in way, himself more a weapon than a person. He does bear his own moral culpability for whatever actions he may undertake, but often he doesn’t even know the greater strategic or tactical decisions being made by the Powers that Be that lead him to kill, and possibly to die. He is simply told to trust in the wisdom, and in the greater knowledge, of those who are giving him his orders. Again, this soft version of the Nuremberg Defense is not without glaring limitations, but it is certainly true that the soldier who—out of a legitimate sense of loyalty and duty, and the (often wildly mistaken) belief that his “superiors” are acting for the greater good—commits acts of violence, some of which inevitably engulf the lives of innocent civilians, is in fact less morally culpable than those who, directly or indirectly, order him to take his actions.
We are shocked and distressed if a President is assassinated, or indeed if such an act is attempted or planned. In the US, we have even passed laws declaring it illegal for us deliberately to target a foreign head of state, even in times of outright war. The argument could be made that this is because such an act produces an extreme and disproportionate degree of chaos in a society, but if we are willing to wage war at all, we are willing to enact such chaos. Simply to kill a “leader” would likely lead to a lower overall body count than would killing all of a country’s soldiers in order finally to capture its political “leaders”.
“Presidents and Senators” regularly make decisions and take actions that get people killed. Governors, state legislators, and judges do so, too, and even the policies of a little old mayor can have life-or-death effects on people under the influence of his or her power. A mayor may not literally send the police out “to” kill someone, but a mayor’s policies can affect how many people are incarcerated, how resources are allocated, how laws are enforced, and so on, all of which can have a dispositive effect on the health and lives of thousands, and sometimes millions, of people.
The Presidency of the United States, looked at statistically, is surely one of the most dangerous jobs on the planet. If memory serves, there have been three Presidents assassinated, and only forty-five total Presidents, so one in fifteen Presidents has been assassinated while in office. This is not—or should not be—surprising or morally troubling. Indeed, our Presidents have been safer than they could possibly deserve to be. It’s more or less certain that every President of the United States has made decisions that have led to people predictably, deliberately, and actually being killed, and far more often have led some individuals to have elevated risks of death and suffering. This is probably an inescapable fact of power and responsibility. Nevertheless, the fact that it is inescapable should not lead us to insulate Presidents from the consequences of their actions, though practicality may mandate that we try to keep them safe on a day to day basis. It’s right that Presidents and Senators should be reminded of, and have cause to reflect on, the fact that their actions can and do kill people. Their feet should—at least from time to time—be held to the proverbial fire.
When artist and pacifist John Lennon was assassinated, this was indeed both a tragedy and a moral outrage. When Martin Luther King, Jr., whose central ethos was that of non-violent protest against real and horrific injustices, was assassinated, it was similarly outrageous. But while it may be understandably shocking and disruptive for a President to be assassinated, there is nothing fundamentally more immoral in that murder than in that of any but the most odious citizen, and indeed—I would argue—there is far less immorality. From an ethical, moral standpoint—not to say from a legal or practical one—it can be reasonable to ask, as English Bob does in the movie Unforgiven, “Why not shoot a President?”
This same moral point applies at all levels where individuals have, by their own choice, assumed roles that entrust them with the power of life and death over other human beings. Given the number of lives that can potentially be destroyed or ruined by their actions, Presidents should—ethically speaking—be far more legitimate targets than soldiers, though strategic reasons may reasonably dictate that they be better protected.
I’m not actually advocating the assassination of any given elected official, nor the assassinations of such officials in general. I’m simply saying that we need to rethink the degree of our moral concern over such occurrences. We should not “lose our minds” more over the possible death of a President, or of a little old mayor, than over that of any randomly chosen citizen, be he or she the “least” member of a society. Indeed, we should be far more ethically sanguine about the killing of the politically powerful. That we are not is probably more due to our unthinking, primate tendencies to follow and revere “authority figures” than to any legitimate moral estimation of the heinousness of such a killing. Political leaders at all levels take actions that have consequences which can be terrible indeed. It would probably be to society’s benefit if such “leaders” felt at least a bit more at risk, in the oldest and most personal sense of the word, than they do. If “leaders” truly felt that, by making decisions that can lead to suffering and death—as they all do—this made them morally legitimate targets upon whom therefore to inflict suffering and death, then they might be more judicious, more cautious, and dare I say more introspective, than many of them usually are.
*I have chosen to use the masculine pronouns here mainly for convenience (it’s a pain in the ass to keep writing “he or she” or “him or her”). It’s also historically true, at least, that most soldiers and police officers have been male, so it’s a decent, if imprecise, first approximation.