Is it possible to justify the assassination of a political leader? It’s a provocative question with a seemingly obvious answer: no.
No matter how much one disagrees with a politician’s political views and ideology, it is a generally accepted principle that to attempt to kill--or enact any violence--on them is unjustifiable and inhumane.
This topic was brought to life this past week at a Congressional baseball practice when a crazed gunman opened fire and shot five people, including two sitting GOP Congressmen. Even in a political atmosphere as rancorous and toxic as ours, the crime was met with swift and forceful opposition from just about any and everyone, with condemnations crossing every partisan and ideological divide.
Senator Bernie Sanders, for whom the shooter had volunteered for this past election cycle, even said “I am sickened by this despicable act. Violence of any kind is unacceptable in our society and I condemn this action in the strongest possible terms.”
As blanket as this opposition may seem, under at least one prominent ethical philosophy, this kind of attack might (depending on the target) not only be theoretically justifiable but also theoretically imperative.
Utilitarianism is, in the simplest of terms, a philosophical doctrine centered around doing the most good for the most amount of people. It is respecting the good of the majority over the good of the individual. In the famous hypothetical train situation, wherein one can flip a lever, condemning one person to death, or do nothing and let two people die, utilitarians would immediately flip the lever. This line of thinking can also be tied to Machiavellianism, the belief that “the ends justify the means.”
Of course, this all sounds wonderful in theory: doing the most good for the most amount of people, no individual life matters more than any other individual life, strive in all your decision making to make a choice that leads to the most net good (or least net bad).
In practice, this philosophy can be a lot more problematic. Imagine, for example, you see a child drowning in a lake or a stream. He could die any second so there is no time to take off your nice, expensive suit. Should you jump in anyway and try to save the child?
The immediate response you should all be having is “yes, of course, I will sacrifice my suit to save this fictional child’s life.” And I would guess that would be most people’s initial reaction.
Utilitarianism would, however, suggest you instead let the child drown, sell the suit for hundreds or thousands of dollars, depending on how nice it is, and give the money to some charity that feeds starving African children for pennies a day. This would, in theory, be the most good for the most amount of people.
Theoretically, this focus of deciding based on the most good for the most amount of people could be applied to political assassinations, as well.
Take, for instance, President Donald Trump. Nearly every person, myself included, regardless of political leanings would likely condemn any violence--perpetrated or attempted--against him as wrong and un-American. However, many liberals, myself included, consider his Presidency to be a threat to thousands of people, as well.
Despite the proposed travel ban’s failure to pass muster with the Courts, President Trump is still very likely to admit fewer Syrian refugees than his predecessor, President Obama, and is almost certainly going to admit fewer Syrian refugees than his 2016 opponent, Secretary Clinton.
Despite the fear-mongering and divisive rhetoric surrounding one of the greatest humanitarian crises of our time, refusing to offer aid to some of the most vulnerable people in the world could very well result in the deaths of many refugees in war-torn Syria or desolate refugee camps who could have otherwise found a home in the United States.
Much like President Obama, President Trump has also already killed hundreds of civilians in the Middle East.
In late May, a series of attacks on an ISIS-occupied town in Syria killed 106 civilians, including 42 children. According to the UN, at least 300 civilians have been killed by US airstrikes in the northern city of Syria of Raqqa alone since March. Another strike in March on Mosul, Iraq reportedly killed about 200 civilians, which is the most deadly US strike (in terms of civilian casualties) since the War in Iraq started in 2003.
These are just a few of the many state-sponsored acts of terror committed by the US in the Middle East. Though the Trump administration is by no means the first or only administration to have killed civilians in the Middle East in the name of the War on Terror, it certainly appears that the numbers are higher now.
As Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr. once said, “The greatest purveyor of violence in the world [is] my own Government.”
Now, let’s talk about healthcare. This issue has been in the news a lot lately as Congressional Republicans seek to “repeal and replace” Obamacare. Though it is likely to see changes in the Senate, the bill as was passed in the House stands to force upwards of 23 million Americans to lose their health insurance, per CBO reports.
This could and likely would lead to earlier deaths for some of these people, and that is solely on the conscience of the Republican Congresspeople who voted for this bill before even seeing what the CBO report would show.
Taking all of this information into consideration, a utilitarian could reasonably justify an assassination of President Trump. And, under utilitarianism, this would be a fair and just ethical decision.
Much like the instance of the child drowning, this is a perfect example of how, though wonderful-sounding in theory, utilitarianism collapses into the realm of seemingly insane in practice. If someone were to commit this type of violence, I and upwards of 90 or 95% of all other Americans would voice our collective disdain for the hypothetical political coward. But why?
It is clear why we would all collectively agree that murdering anyone, maybe even especially the President of the United States, is wrong. We as a society generally place a high premium on individual lives and the taking of one is considered the most heinous of crimes.
This makes sense and I think one would be hard-pressed to find any substantial amount of people willing to disagree that murder is wrong and should be illegal. But, can something morally wrong still lead to something good?
Many liberals--and some conservatives, too--would consider it a good thing if President Trump were to resign, to be impeached, or to have never been elected in the first place. Yet, all of us would grieve if he were to die, either of natural causes or by some deranged attacker.
Sure, it makes sense for us as humans to feel sad for the death of another. As despicable as his politics may be, Donald Trump is still a human being and so are his family members, friends, and associates.
A certain amount of this grieving would be performative outrage, as well. We would feel a collective duty or an obligation to be public with our grieving. We would feel the need to make sure everyone knows that we, too, are sad and/or angry.
Functionally, the death of President Trump would result in the same as his resignation or impeachment. Plenty of Presidents have died or been killed throughout history without a Constitutional or democratic crisis. Yet, no one would celebrate a death the same way. Even if someone thought it was ultimately a good thing that he was dead and out of power, they wouldn’t celebrate.
Part of this is political and societal pressures, but part of it is also genuine human emotion. It’s not natural to feel glad about someone’s death or feel that it is somehow right, no matter what circumstances accompany that death.
This is, I think, where utilitarianism fails. It does not recognize the unique and individual value of every single life. Instead, it thinks of lives as mere numbers. Even if the death of President Trump were ultimately good for the world as a whole, it would still be tragic.