All powerful governments feature assassination in their strategic toolbox.
Although the ongoing investigation has not yet produced any clear-cut results, leaders of the Western powers were immediately convinced that the Kremlin ordered the poisoning of Sergei Skripal in the UK town of Salisbury. British Prime Minister Theresa May initiated an as yet minor diplomatic war as a result, along with the US, France and Germany. Today’s limited and mostly symbolic skirmishes could escalate at any time as many forces in the world of politics are playing up the threat that they believe Russia now represents for the stability of Western civilization.
Serge Halimi points out in Le Monde Diplomatique, by way of contrast, that “Israel has taken great care to avoid commenting, perhaps because it is one of the countries that most frequently ‘carry out this kind of operation, known as an ‘extraterritorial elimination.’”
Today we present a pair of 3D definitions:
A synonym for cold-blooded murder used by governments and justified by the idea that the nation’s purity requires all forms of contamination to be excluded by annihilation
A synonym for cold-blooded murder used by governments in foreign lands to ensure purity
Citing the pertinent figures, Halimi points out what every serious observer knows: All powerful governments feature assassination in their strategic toolbox. Some use it more sparingly than others. The trick is to represent it as an act of war, which appears to assuage both the media and the populations of those nations that resort to assassination. This strategy now works even when no war has been officially declared, which has been the pattern for some time in the United States. Congress consistently waives its responsibility for declaring war.
The other secret to maintaining the appearance of legality is to make sure the media relentlessly passes the message that it’s a contest between good and evil and the assassinations are serving the cause of righteousness. In marketing terms, that was the one mission of George W. Bush that clearly was accomplished when he created the brand, the “global war on terror.”
The case of Israel is slightly different in that, since its creation in 1948, the state has been in a virtual permanent civil war.
According to Mathieu Boulègue, a researcher at the Royal Institute of International Affairs, a London think tank, “numerous countries practice this type of operation, which they term “extraterritorial assassinations.” In other words, this is standard practice, nothing to start a war about. Boulègue points out elsewhere that the real reason Prime Minster May decided to take diplomatic action was less a reaction to the Kremlin doing what governments do than the fact that a British policeman investigating the crime was also a victim of the poisoning.
In a famous series of television advertisements in the 1980s, Vittel launched the slogan “you must (or need to) eliminate” (il faut éliminer). For example, this one in which a man says he “feels soft” (mou), to which the waiter replies “you need to eliminate.” “Drink, drink, drink … and eliminate” is the message.
For decades, il faut éliminer became a powerful meme for the French, conveying the idea that drinking quantities of water and getting exercise were important. Water flushes out impurities. Through a process of natural elimination, we restore our organism to a state of purity.
This has long been the preferred metaphor of strong-armed political regimes. Death — even massive death — can provide the secret to a nation’s health by keeping it pure. Adolf Hitler, the scrupulous vegetarian, called it “the final solution,” protecting the purity of his imagined Aryan race. General Jack D. Ripper in Stanley Kubrick’s Dr. Strangelove described his obsession with “purity of essence” and his complained about the fluoridation of water as he calmly launched an all-out nuclear attack on Russia.
And, of course, it provides the “reasoned” justification of drone warfare that leaders see as avoiding the mess of traditional warfare by cleanly and efficiently eliminating impurities, even if some of those impurities happen to be harmless (civilian casualties, non-combatants, wedding parties, etc.).
*[In the age of Oscar Wilde and Mark Twain, another American wit, the journalist Ambrose Bierce, produced a series of satirical definitions of commonly used terms, throwing light on their hidden meanings in real discourse. Bierce eventually collected and published them as a book, The Devil’s Dictionary, in 1911. We have shamelessly appropriated his title in the interest of continuing his wholesome pedagogical effort to enlighten generations of readers of the news.]
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