Archive for December 2003


December 31, 2003

October was a difficult month for Roberto. The sunlight was losing its heat, and the dark angel of procrastination which sat on his shoulder convinced him that watching baseball games was more important than sleeping this year. “The games they’re playing right now are shaping the national consciousness,” she whispered. “If you want to be a successful businessman, if you want to be a fully functioning member of humanity, you’ll watch these games so you can laugh with your clients about it for years to come.” Roberto suspected that staying awake in class would give him even better prospects for the future, but he’d been in love with the hit and run and the double switch since the day he was born. The game reminded him of his youth and of America’s, and he could only repay his debt by sacrificing his body to the pennant races every fall.

The most difficult day of the month was Saturday the 13th. Sunday, el cumpleaños de su abuela, did not belong to him; 12 hours of it were destined for the black hole of extended family functions. What he didn’t finish on Saturday would be resumed on midnight of Monday morning after the baseball game. He would nibble a refrigerated tortilla and become hypnotized by the beautiful blue aura of the computer screen and then pound his head furiously because finishing that lab report was a matter of life and death. The stoners would rumble outside over drugs and knock over all the trashcans, then diffuse into the honeycombed apartments without a word or a resolution. He hated these nights. Saturday was important.

That morning, Roberto showered and dressed, shaved and brushed his teeth and even fed the dog. His father had taken the car to work, and his mother was doing the dishes and whistling “Habañera.” If he ducked into his room long enough, he could avoid chores. It was 1:12 PM, and he was ready to work. He reached into his backpack for his algebra book. It wasn’t there. He looked on the dressers, in the closet, and next to the computer.

“Mom, have you seen my math book?” he asked as if his job were to keep track of her things.

“No, I haven’t, hijo,” she humored him. “Have you looked in the closet?”


“Oh, well…” She faded back into her world of stainless steel and dishwasher fluid.

Roberto, ten minutes poorer, grimaced and shuffled back into his room. He noticed a corner of the book poking out from under the bed. He was happy that he’d found it but frustrated that he hadn’t looked there first.

“It’s always in the last place you look because once you find it, you stop looking.” He shook his head.

He lay down on the floor, pulled the book into his arms, and then noticed something else. He knew he’d seen it before but couldn’t remember where. He tossed the book on top of the bed and reached for the new thing. It was wooden and pear-shaped and had eleven catgut strings. His stomach sunk, and a hundred sights and feelings attacked him at once. It was his old girlfriend’s guitar.

Not a guitar,” she tittered at him from across time and space. He remembered standing on her porch and receiving it so long ago. “It’s not, not, not a guitar, and don’t let anyone tell you it is. It’s a lute. My father bought it from an old man on the streets of Caracas. This is what the bards played in the Middle Ages, before the Reconquista, to romance their fair maidens. You men have destroyed God and chivalry and romance, but that only makes the instrument more beautiful and interesting. You’ll have to learn japonés somewhere else, but I do know about this. Treat it well.”

It had been a long, long time since he’d seen the lute. It was plain and plump but charming. The body had a light brown color and smooth texture; the finger board was a beautiful dark brown. Because the pegboard bent backwards, the instrument looked like it was perpetually leaning its head back and laughing (or moaning with pleasure, depending on how one played it). There was a purple stain near the bridge that smelled like cheap wine, and its bottom was well-worn from children dragging it around. It didn’t look young, and this attracted him.

Roberto strummed the lute; it wailed at him for neglecting it for so long. He apologized to it and caressed its sides. He hastily tuned it and hoped he was correct; the notes were a bit flat but passable. He kissed its side and strummed it again.

The sound was timeless. It spoke to him of the Arabian Desert and the Catalan and maidens rewarding their heroes with kerchiefs and brooches. He plucked at the strings in intervals, fumbling like a small child through the frets in hopes of discovering the perfect chord. The longer he played, the more confident he became. He imagined flamenco dancers and their stewards, the guitarristas, playing in dank, smoky bars in the old country. The girls with the tambourines moved as if their souls were too light to feel the pull of gravity. The most stunning of them all was the girl in front. She wore a white dress with red and green embroidery that billowed in the wind. She did not just follow the beat; she emitted it from every part of her body. The blue and gold and red candlelight seemed to bend towards her. She cut through the cigarette smoke with her lithe body and stamped the beat with her sculpted legs. Her hair fell as a veil around her, swimming into her eyes and mouth until she could no longer stand it and tied it into a ponytail. She now stepped off the stage and moved closer and closer to Roberto. The guitar pick slipped out of his hands, and he cut his fingertips on the strings. She sat on his lap, pulled on his collar, and drew close to his face. She smelled like strawberries and incense. The odor suffocated him. He recognized it all too well.


The lute fell out of his hands. He leaned backwards on his bed and wiped his face off with his shirt. He looked up again, and the bar, women, and scent were gone. He was inside his room, and it was an Indian summer. He wanted to douse his face with water.

He returned five minutes later, hydrated and refreshed. The lute lay on its stomach, its head curled up and peering at him with feigned interest. He stood over it, hands in his pockets, and let his eye wander to its backside. There was a tattoo there that he had not seen before.

Las forzas de hado me empalan.

The forces of destiny impale me.

“Tell me why.”

The lute rolled around in Roberto’s hands and faced him. He tickled the strings with his fingers, and as the instrument loosened up, it showed Roberto its vision. Measure by measure came the little stucco houses, vegetable gardens, and lilting trees. Carts slogged through the streets and spilled seeds into the dirt where they commingled with the manure and suffocated under the stamping hooves of horse upon horse. Dogs lazed in the filth, and fleas feasted on their sides. Science had not visited the town in a century.

Though the seeds of change had not yet sprouted here, they were bearing their first fruits in the capital to the north. The citadels of government and business were annually sweeping farther into the suburbs and higher into the sky. The tiny oil refineries were just beginning to spit chunks of smoke in the air. The hums of automobiles and electric lights were stretching the day and encroaching upon the night. The American merchants settled in the city and brought their theatre, their music, and their women with them, injecting unknown elements into the culture that the citizens both welcomed and despised.

Sitting on the beach, crafting sand castles, totally ignorant of the rising tide that would soon swallow him was Miguel López de Rodriguez. From this little house, a few miles from the capital city, he served as provider and protector of his family. He carried stains on his clothes and wrinkled on his face that had been accumulating for many years and the handle-bar mustache that he’d always wanted in his younger days. He had the body of an ox, but his manual dexterity was unmatched in this part of the country. He was a classic artisan, and he was the twenty-third Rodriguez to ply his trade: music-making.

On this night, he was polishing his newest creation, a lute commissioned by the plantation owner Obregón. He made the body a light brown and the neck a dark brown; the contrast appealed to him. He was in a blissful reverie of work when he heard the door knock and remembered who was coming: the gentleman caller. He frantically wiped his hands off on an old towel and hurried to the door. Señora Rodriguez tossed her dusting rag into a corner and proudly stood at her husband’s left hand to meet the young couple.

Rodriguez swung open the door. His daughter was smiling and did not have any bruises. The boy was young and handsome and well-built, but the father felt he was clever enough to best this suitor in a fight.

¡Buenas noches!” exclaimed Rodriguez with interest. “We finally meet.” The opposing parties exchanged kisses. The boy did not smell like alcohol, he noted. They walked inside.

The women made the conversation with the boy a lively one, giving Rodriguez an opportunity to size him up. His hair was short, his arms looked strong, and his posture was perfect. He had a round jaw and looked more like an Indian than a Spaniard. His clothes were not impressive, but he dressed well. He had good table manners and charm. He seemed moderately intelligent, and his daughter smiled and nodded whenever he spoke. He knew about a wide range of subjects but never mentioned his occupation. This perplexed Rodriguez so he decided to pursue the subject over a plate of paella.

“I like you, ah…”

“Ricardo Gonzales, sir.”

“Yes, Rico. I’m glad you’re interested in my daughter, but I am also wondering what else would bring you to a rustic villa such as this.”

“Oh, it’s a great place, sir. I grew up a town like this, and so I’m fond for this life.”

“And do you plan to live in a town like this, yourself?”

“Umm, actually, sir, I would love to raise a family here, but I also want to see what it is like in the city.”

“The city?” The old man leaned forward. “What could there be for you in the city?”

“Why, sir, it’s not that bad. The more business we can bring to the nation, the better off it will be. We will become great like America.”

“I see…yes…great like America. How will you contribute to this revolution?”

The boy seemed to look for something above Rodriguez’s head for a moment and then returned to reality. “I, err…”

“He’s a soldier, Daddy!” His daughter smiled and hugged Rico’s arm. Rodriguez felt an axe of grief hack into his side.

“A soldier, you say.” His face fell behind impenetrable clouds. A thousand permutations ran through his head. The boy winced and wished he could start this conversation over.

“He didn’t start with much, but he’s moving up,” Rico’s intercessor chimed, tossing peso upon peso into the abyss. “He’s meeting lots of wonderful people, and he’s going to make a great life for us, and…”

“Tell me, Maria, how he can make your life wonderful when he is bleeding on the streets! Tell me, Rico, where are the enemies that you will fight?” Rodriguez stabbed his food in several places with his knife. The boy shivered and did not answer until Rodriguez cleaved his chicken in two and glared at him, implying that he would like to do the same.

“Er, um, there are no national enemies in the country, but there are political dissidents. There are those who would try to repudiate everything El BenEmerito has done. These rioters would take up arms against us and stand against everything Venezuelans hold dear.” The boy stood up and shouted: “Liberty! Equality! Wealth!”

“IDIOCY!” bellowed Rodriguez. He slammed his hand on the table and made the dishes shake. “You are destroying what we have worked so hard to create! Since the time of Simon Bolivar, all we’ve had is scheming! We have forgotten everything that makes us a people! We have tossed aside the old ways and made ourselves whores to the American imperialists, and now we plunder our land for its very lifeblood and repay it by spewing garbage into the air!”

“Wake up, padre! We have to do this to make ourselves great!” the boy returned.

“Great? How can we be great if we forget where we came from? You call him ‘the meritorious.’ I say he is El Bagre, and he and his fellow catfish can jump in the sea and swim to America if they like. I do not want to work in a factory. I want to make lutes. You do not want to make them and don’t even care if they exist. I am ashamed of you.” He wished his son were still alive.

The boy spat on the ground, then sat down and shoved paella into his mouth. Some of it dribbled onto his chin. Rodriguez recognized him now; he saw the pigs in their uniforms eating at a trough of dollar bills and rolling in the garbage behind the White House. They pumped black blood from the earth and drowned the matadors and the bulls in it. He pushed his plate away, disgusted, and retreated to his workshop. The remaining three finished their dinner and drank their wine in silence. Having had his fill, Ricardo got up to leave.

“Thank you, Señora, for inviting me, to your home,” he said slowly and magnanimously. He smelled of sweat and sherry.

“Thank you, Ricardo,” the mother returned, looking down on the ground. “I am sorry about my husband. He is a fool.” Maria wept at her side.

“I won’t, be coming back here, I think. But, I would still like, to see you again, Maria, Maria.”

The Señora turned away. “That is enough. Please go.”

“Yes, thank you, Mother.” He kissed Maria’s hand and wiped away her tears. He slunk off their doorstep towards the soft glow of the city.

Night smothered Rodriguez’s world, and he cursed it. He did not need much vision, but he had to at least see what was in directly front of him to finish his work. From a back cabinet he fetched the matches and candles. He placed the lights all around him and bent over the altar where he had sacrificed the last thirty years of his life. He cut eleven strings of varying width, attached them to the bridge, and tied them around the pegboard; he smiled because it bent back at the perfect angle.

Slowly, he set about the business of tuning the instrument. He expected perfection from each of the eleven strings; if any of them were out of tune, the dissonance racked his entire body. The memory of the boy leaked out of him as the lute became more and more perfect. He tested every combination of notes with the exacting judgment that can only be achieved by the master of a craft. He was not satisfied until the sun peeked over the horizon.

A new day was born, a day with a thousand births and deaths and loves and losses. The elites, perched on Mount Olympus high above the clouds, would write, “Nothing much of importance happened today.” To the small men and women who give the world its texture, though, this day, like every other, could mean everything. There were a million conflicts and a million resolutions, and no matter what would happen, in a few hours the sun would rise again.

On this day which meant nothing and everything, the lute entered the world. Rodriguez laughed and cried. He remembered the imbroglio of the night before but thought nothing of it. He had brought the world another instrument for joy. He sat and cuddled it. He plucked its strings and was happy.

He played the lute a month later when he visited Obregón’s plantation, and a government official answered the door and told him that the man and his oppression were no more. Half a year later, Maria eloped with the young soldier, and he played on. He played it at her funeral when she and her stillborn son passed into the earth, and he played it as he wondered what happened to Ricardo, the young soldier who was aging fast. Time slipped through his fingers like soil washing into the rivers after a flood. Gómez, who had given Venezuela a strong body while taking away its spirit, passed away. The city expanded outwards and around Rodriguez’s tiny village; he spent his days building six-strings for the young officers but returned to his first love every night and to dream about the past.

Finally, his wife passed away, and Rodriguez looked at the other side of the bed and realized the lute was the only friend he had left. He was lost and despondent. His magnificent black hair had turned gray and wispy, and he hunched over whenever he walked. Though time had ravaged his body, his companion looked the same as it always did. He wanted it to carry a scar, too. He found a knife in his tool closet and set about his bloody work.

“Las forzas de hado me empalan.”

“Now you, too, will remember my pain. May no man live as I did.” He hobbled to his room, set the knife on a table there, and went to bed. In those dark days, he was always tired.

The next morning, a group of hungry young soldiers flattened Rodriguez’s door and looted his house. The ancient heard the sound, brandished his weapon, and hobbled into his kitchen. The promising young men panicked and shot him to death. The diseased old willow twisted and crashed to the ground. The men grabbed their loot and scurried away.

His neighbors, los Ceres, ventured into the house a few hours later and tripped over his dead body. They had little means, but they loved the man and his music very much. Señor and his young son cleaned the body and carried it to the graveyard, and Señora gathered flowers. He received a simple burial in the pauper’s lot; Señor could not remember where his wife lied but hoped she was close.

As Rodriguez had aged, the town around him had transformed from a poor outlying village to a very poor borough of a sprawling city. Since he had no family, the neighbors gathered the next day to distribute what was left of his things.

Ceres found the lute on its workbench waiting for its master. “This was his favorite,” he said to his son. “You ought to have it. If you play well enough, you can earn some money with it.” He smiled in an attempt to hide his tears. His son nodded and thanked his father. The boy tucked the gift under his arm; the father took from the pantries what his family needed. Before they left, Ceres consecrated the bridge of the last surviving member of the house with wine.

“Alabaré, abuelo. Alabaré.”

He snapped the bottle shut, and father and son walked into the night together.

The lute fell silent.

Roberto tore at it with the pick, wishing with all his heart that he could break it. He heaved and coughed and thrust himself upon it again and again. He slapped the sides with his hand and grunted at it; his sweat soaked through his shirt and made him shiver. The screams of the strings caromed off the walls. He hated this ending. He hated the lute.

“Is that your story? Why? Why the hell did you tell me that? Don’t you think I’ve had enough heartbreak?”

He saw himself panting in the grass with Juana, putting flowers in her hair and kissing her stomach and carrying her in his arms. He felt hot and sweaty and more alive than he’d ever been. In her arms, he felt strong and manly and compassionate. There he was a good man; there he meant something.

Then came the chill of their winter. He remembered the arguments about nothing, her accusations that he didn’t care and that he didn’t want her. She wasn’t too far from the truth, and he was glad of it then. She scared him. She was vicious and cruel to the people she took for granted; she said bad things about his family, and he hated her for it. He walked out on her during dinner at her house to play baseball with Pedro. She told him he was the worst man she had ever met and that all his pretenses of goodness were lies. He did not cry when he left her. He knew then that it would never work between them. Still, her presence haunted him every night. It was as if she never left.

The door opened. Roberto gasped and shuddered and wondered what his mother would say.

“Are you trying to make rock music?” She peered at him through her thick-rimmed blue glasses. “Well, lunch is ready.”

He collapsed on the floor in a heap. He thought of Juana, and he thought of the old man. He was confused and hungry, so he followed his mother to the kitchen.

The ravioli was delicious.

“Will you stay and clean up?” his mother asked.

“Not now, mamá.”

Claro que no. Men never clean up their messes.”

Offended, he stabbed at his ravioli with a fork and cleaved a square in half. He glared at his mother’s back and muttered about American imperialism.

His eyes dilated. He was out of the house within a minute.

The walk to her apartment was half a mile. There were no other people between them, only nature. The trail was all too familiar to him now; he’d run it many times. He did not run today. The load he carried was too heavy.

The lute bumped against his hip as he walked, making weak noises in protest. The sunlight was colorless now. He loathed this part of the afternoon when everything stood still.

On the left was the large field of grass. He remembered playing baseball with Pablo in the evening and putting flowers in her hair at night. To his right were the woods where he’d kissed her; to his left was the lake where she pushed him in. He could not escape the memories. He’d come so far, but he hadn’t moved at all.

He arrived at her doorstep. He wondered what he was holding and remembered that it was the lute. He took it in both hands and realized its beauty. He didn’t want to ring the bell. He didn’t want to give this treasure back. He wanted to keep it with him forever and let it sit under his bed and remind him that he had loved once, that there still might be a chance, and that as long as he had it he’d have to see her again. After bearing him a dozen children, she would be old and pear-shaped herself. He’d loved her once. He’d believed that she meant for him. That was how it was meant to be, right? Was he making the wrong decision by closing the door now? Was he ruining his life? Could it work again?

The lute felt very heavy in his hand.

He rang the doorbell. He imagined her opening the door, putting a pistol on his face, and blowing his brains out. He decided he’d have to jump to his right to make a clean getaway.

She opened the door and, like any normal person, said hello. She was not angry or happy; she did not seem to have any emotions at all. He muttered something stupid, and she said she was just fine. He noticed the length of the shadows. Daylight was fading fast.

“Here it is,” he said. “Thanks for letting me borrow it.”

She took it with two hands, set it down behind her, and turned back towards him. Her hair fell into her eyes and mouth; she brushed it away with her hand. She looked at the trees behind him. “Good. Thanks for bringing it back. I was going to call you about it.”

He waited for her to say something else. She didn’t.

“Well, see you later.”


Roberto did not want to leave, but before he knew it, he was lying on his bed and looking inside his math book. After refreshing himself about what all the symbols meant and what the purpose of mathematics was, he set to work. The material was far easier then he’d thought. He finished the homework in twenty minutes.

The equations were balanced now. He understood everything. The ghosts in his room were gone. He was free to live again, and in time, he would love again.

But that did not stop the tears.


Assassination as a Tool of Foreign Policy

December 19, 2003

Last year, George W. Bush gave the CIA permission to assassinate Saddam Hussein and al Qaeda operatives by labeling them enemy combatants at war with the United States. Some raised eyebrows at this reneging on previous presidential policy, but Bush made a wise decision in light of current international circumstances. The United States is locked in total war with an aggressor who will attack no matter the nature of its enemy’s strategy. By killing the leaders of the operation, it can disable the attack with less loss of life. This is a dangerous route, however, so the U.S. must prepare well for such an operation and keep control of its allies and operatives. Assassination is an acceptable tool of foreign policy which can save lives by averting war, and the United States should use it when at war.

Parts of three different executive orders prohibit political assassinations. Section 5(g) of President Gerald Ford’s Executive Order 11905 (1976) states that “no employee of the United States Government shall engage in, or conspire to engage in, political assassination.” Section 2-305 of Executive Order 12036 (1978) by President Jimmy Carter and Section 2.11 of Executive Order 12333 by President Ronald Reagan reiterated this commitment. This policy has not been addressed by successive presidents or repealed by Congress since, so it is still in effect.

U.S. Representative Bob Barr of Georgia made the most recent challenge of this ban when he introduced the “Terrorist Elimination Act of 2001” on January 3, 2001 to the House Committee on International Relations. The act states that repeal of the policy would help ensure the “swift, sure, and precise action needed by the United States to protect our national security.” It would also eliminate the collateral damage that results from the military’s current, unsuccessful strategy of bombing large areas which are suspected terrorist locations. The measure gained 15 co-sponsors after September 11 but is still dead on the floor of the committee.

Barr’s implication that the ban on assassination promotes the large-scale bombing of random civilian locations has much historical merit. These attacks rarely succeed; one example is the attack on Libya’s Muammar al-Qaddafi. The Reagan administration had accused Qaddafi of using Soviet money to foster international terrorism, sending assassins to kill the President, and bombing a German discotheque visited by U.S. soldiers. In 1986, the U.S. made a bombing run on Tripoli; the missiles crippled his air force, smashed Qaddafi’s personal compound, and killed his 15-month old daughter but did not harm him or his elite guard. The administration considered the attack a success, but Qaddafi is still in power today.

The United States’ moratorium on covert operations has not deterred other nations from taking the same actions against them. 12 years after Reagan accused Libya of planning to assassinate him, Saddam Hussein’s men tried to kill former President George H.W. Bush. Kuwait broke up the car bomb plot during Bush’s visit to their country April 14-16, 1993. President Bill Clinton blessed Hussein with a “firm and commensurate” response of 23 Tomahawk Missiles on the Iraqi Intelligence Service headquarters, but Hussein had no such luck against President George W. Bush. Bush, who called Hussein “the guy who tried to kill my dad”, declared war on Hussein in the spring of 2003, and the U.S. finally captured him Sunday, December 14, 2003.

Historically, assassination has been a domestic emergency route to remove poor leaders. The Chinese philosopher Mencius said that it is an acceptable response to tyrants because a poor ruler loses his divine right to rule. Cicero defended Caesar’s assassination as a preemptive measure against tyranny:

What can be a greater crime than to kill a man, especially one who is an intimate friend? But is he a criminal who killed a tyrant, even if the tyrant was his friend? It does not seem so to the Roman people, who regard this as the finest of glorious deeds.

Richard Lawrence, a home painter, made the first attempt on the life of a President of the United States. Lawrence confronted Andrew Jackson at Southern Congressman Warren R. Davis’s funeral and fired at him from two different pistols at a distance of eight feet; both misfired. Jackson then beat Lawrence with his cane while others wrestled the attacker to the ground. Jackson construed the attack as a Whig conspiracy to kill him; Whigs claimed Jackson had organized the attack to drum up public sympathy. Neither was correct. Physicians diagnosed Lawrence as a paranoid schizophrenic, and a jury acquitted him of his crimes and confined him to a mental hospital until his death in 1861.

The most important assassination in history was Gavrilo Princip’s attack on Austro-Hungarian Archduke Franz Ferdinand on June 28, 1914. Princip was a member of the Serbian nationalist group Black Hand, an underground united led by Serbian Colonel Diagutin Dimitrijevic which recruited students to do its dirty work. Though Ferdinand might have reformed the empire when he took power, Princip could not wait that long. On the way to Sarajevo, he and his cohorts Cabrinovic and Grabez received aid from many Serbo-Croatian sympathizers. Princip shot Ferdinand and his wife, Sophie, during a parade, and police foiled his subsequent attempt at suicide. He acknowledged his crime but did not regret it: “I am not a criminal. I have killed a man who has done wrong; I think I have done right.” The three ringleaders received 20 years each of hard labor, had to fast one day per month, and had to serve solitary confinement on the anniversary of the killing. Other members of the plot served life imprisonment or capital punishment. The Black Hand was never implicated for the crime; Princip, Cabrinovic, and Grabez died before World War I ended. This attack triggered that war, which ultimately destroyed Europe’s dominance in world affairs.

Ironically, the concept of assassination and the word itself stems from Islamic culture. The word “assassin” comes from the Arabic word hassa (“to kill or exterminate”) but is similar to the word asas (a holy man associated with a prophet). The first “Assassins” by name were the Isamailis, a faction of Islam that split from Shiism in 760 A.D. In 969, the Ismailis conquered Egypt, set up the Fatima Caliphate, and made Cairo the center of their civilization. Hassan ibn-al-Sabbah created a sub-sect of Ismailism and kept power by training Assassins: young, intelligent men whose craft was swift killing. The Assassins met political demolition in 1186 after their leader, Kukn al-Din Khrushah, surrendered their most powerful fortress, Alamut, to the Mongols, who betrayed them and killed 12,000 surrendering people. The Mongolian historian Juvani said of the Assassins, “Of him and his stock no trace was left, and he and his kindred became but a tale on men’s lips and a tradition in the world.” Though the tribe died, their spirit lived on. Another clan of underground killers was the Thugs, an Indian clan who worshipped Kali, goddess of destruction, and “practiced their brand of murder and robbery according to rigidly prescribed ritual.” The Thugs practiced their brand of murder until the British stamped them out in the 1830s. These groups were precursors to secret agents who also use murder as a tool of statecraft.

Assassination of one country’s political leaders by another became more popular with the advent of total war, in which a nation attacks anything related to its enemy’s army. General William Tecumseh Sherman immortalized this philosophy in his letter to the mayor of Atlanta: “You cannot qualify war in harsher terms than I will. War is cruelty, and you cannot refine it; and those who brought war into our country deserve all the curses and maledictions a people can pour out. I know I had no hand in making this war, and I know I will make more sacrifices today than any of you to secure peace.” Soon after, he cut a swath through the South, destroying everything in sight, in his infamous March to the Sea. Today’s premier leaders are a part of the army as commanders-in-chief and are thus subject to attack.

Al Qaeda’s September 11 attack on the World Trade Center was a symbolic act of total war, killing thousands of civilians and toppling one of America’s symbols of economic grandeur. The hijackers also hit the Pentagon, a sign of U.S. military strength, and the fourth plane which crashed in Pennsylvania was meant to destroy the Capitol, a symbol of American democracy. The ubiquity of suicide bombers in Middle Eastern life reveals the depressing truth that thousands of young people can find no better purpose for their lives than to sacrifice it for such a cause. Terrorists will not pull punches; guerrilla attacks have not slowed since Saddam Hussein’s capture. The United States must meet fire with fire.

One possible objection to state-sponsored assassination is that it is immoral for man to decide who deserves to live and who deserves to die. While this is a fair argument, one should not forget that tyranny and war, which injure and kill thousands or millions of people at a time, are even more despicable than the death of one man. Furthermore, the government has a responsibility to do what is best for its people. As Thomas Hobbes writes in his Leviathan, the essence of government is “One Person, of whose Acts a great Multitude, by mutuall Covenants with another, have made themselves every one the author, to the end he may use the strength and means of them all, as he shall think expedience, for that Peace and Common Defence.” Since the primary goal of man is “self-preservation…that is to say, of getting themselves out from that miserable condition of Warre,” removing another government’s leader to avert war is a responsible decision.

Wars, as detrimental to civilization as they are, are too often fought for the sake of a few elites; as Remarque remarks in All Quiet on the Western Front, “It is very queer that the unhappiness of the world is so often brought on by small men.” The American Civil War was a perfect example of “a rich man’s war and a poor man’s fight”. Ostensibly, the Southern states seceded from the Union to guarantee their rights to own slaves. Three-quarters of Southerners, however, did not own slaves, and 3.7% of the population owned 58% of them. More than half the people of these states opposed secession, but the decision was made not by them but by their congressional delegates, most of whom owned slaves. Thirst for titles and land fueled the worst of the European wars, including the Thirty Years War, World War I, and World War II. If the United States removed belligerent leaders from power, it could avert full-scale conflict.

The numerous Germans who tried to kill Adolf Hitler had the same idea. Hitler’s several narrow escapes also illustrate the difficulty of killing a leader, even one who is very publicly visible. On November 8, 1939, Hitler departed early from the anniversary part of the Beer Hall Putsch. Twelve minutes later, a bomb planted near the speaker’s platform exploded, killing seven Navis and wounding sixty-three others. The would-be assassin was Johann George Elser, a Swabian cabinetmaker who had set the bomb three days earlier. The Nazis placed Elser in a concentration camp and murdered him April 9, 1945.

The plotters of the 1944 attempt on Hitler’s life were military men who were disillusioned with their leader and hoped to negotiate peace with the Allies after his death. They failure several times, the final one coming after Hitler survived a bomb that exploded in the same room as him, and the schemers failed to follow up on the operation. The Nazi People’s Courts responded with an estimated 1000 arrests and 2000 death sentences. Among those implicated was General Irwin Rommel, the Desert Fox, who had bailed out of the plot early on but received a death sentence from the Nazis. He committed suicide instead.

Another lucky leader was French hero Charles de Gaulle, who survived 31 different attempts on his life. The most serious was an attack by the Organisation de l’Armee Secrete, right-wing terrorists who blamed de Gaulle for the loss of the French colony Algeria. Fifteen members of the OAS were convicted after their second try, a salvo of gunfire on the President’s car which blew out one of its front tires before it escaped. De Gaulle’s only unjiry was a cut finger he sustained after brushing shards of glass off his coat.

Though the deposition of a tyrant is acceptable, the United States should not topple governments simply because they are not democracies. This would recall the senYet these actions also drew harsh criticism for the Jesuits, some of whom taught de rege, the belief that killing a heretical king is honorable.

Such a teaching seems ridiculous in today’s America where the Constitution has guaranteed religious freedom for 227 years. During the Cold War, though, the United States eliminated Communist leaders with dogmatic zeal. In some cases, the CIA supported dictators and overthrew democratically elected leaders simply because of its opposition to Communism. One example is its support for General Augusto Pinochet’s military coup and assassination of Chilean president Salvador Allende, who nationalized one billion dollars of American holdings claiming it would free the nation from rule by large landowners and corporations. Pinochet was a ruthless totalitarian who still rules the country today. If the United States wants to remove a leader, it must have a replacement plan which will improve the nation’s situation.

The biggest obstacle to effective assassination policy is the difficulty of finding and killing leaders, particularly dictators. The United Kingdom’s Mirror proved the relative weakness of Western security when it infiltrated Buckingham Palace shortly before President Bush’s visit this November. Dictators like Saddam Hussein, however, have multiple palaces and complex defense strategies, and U.S. efforts to infiltrate these governments have been littered with failures. Reports that Hussein tried to buy uranium from Nigeria for us in nuclear technology were inaccurate. 1,200 CIA operatives are working inside Iraq, but they cannot find the weapons of mass destruction they claim he had. Hussein is now in American custody, but before that he was at large for months. The U.S. cannot kill important figures at the drop of a hat; doing so requires careful planning and a great deal of luck.

One example of a perfectly conceived and executive lethal operation was Spanish Communist Ramon Mercader’s killing of Leon Trotsky. Stalin orchestrated the attempt in response to Trotsky’s ten years of revolt-in-exile. The plot went into motion in 1938 when Mercader courted Sylvia Ageloff, a social worker and assistant to Trotsky. In October of 1939, Mercader moved to Mexico City to get closer to Trotsky. He visited Trotsky’s home every day and met him four days after a May 24, 1940 gunfire attack on the Communist leader’s house. The two were close friends. Then Mercader attacked Trotsky with an axe inside Trotsky’s home. The weapon dug into Trotsky’s skull and split shards of bone into his brain; the Russian fought Mercader until police arrived, and the former died 26 hours later. Mercader spent twenty years in prison in Mexico; police could not formally link him with the Community Party until 1950. Shortly after his release in 1960, he disappeared behind the Iron Curtain. Insidious as Stalin’s plot was, it was an exceptional clandestine operation.

One thing a covert operator needs is tight lips, and one model for discretion is Mehmet Ali Agca, a member of several militant Islamic groups who shot Pope John Paul II on May 13, 1981. Agca received life imprisonment and claimed that Bulgarian government officials had given him $1,250,000 to kill the pontiff. Italy took three Bulgarians and four Turks to trial based on Agca’s testimony, but he then devalued his words by claiming he was Jesus Christ and the KGB and CIA were involved. Agca’s claims of Bulgarian and KGB involvement have a ring of truth because of the Pope’s outspoken attacks on Communism, but it seems no one will ever know who plotted the attack. Agca’s ability to keep the secret for 20 years saved the country who hired him, if there were any, from public shaming for trying to kill the pope.

Unfortunately, the need for secrecy and effective use of political back-channels in covert operations would give the U.S. plenty of chances to align itself with disreputable characters. Though occasionally useful, such figures are fraught with peril and ought to be avoided. Operation Mongoose, the CIA-Mafia campaign to kill Fidel Castro, was the CIA’s most notorious failure and the impetus for Gerald Ford’s assassination ban. Using Howard Hughes as a conduit, it recruited Tampa Bay and New York mobs who took the opportunity to hoodwink the FBI and keep their agents from focusing on the mobs’ other illegal activities. Among the considered methods were bombs planted on the ocean floor while Castro skin-dived, stabbing him with a poisoned pen, giving him poisoned cigars, contaminating his clothes with fungus and tubercle bacilli, and infecting his beard so his hair would fall out, which would sully his manhood. Eventually, the government suspected the Mafia was selling information to Castro and pulled the plug on the project. Some suspect the murders of Chicago boss Sam Giancard in 1975 and Johnny Roselli in 1976 were attempts to cover up the scam. Underground crime organizations specialize in deceit; it is not surprise that they would use the government to further their own ends.

The world is a dangerous place. Nineteen hijackers reminded us of this truth on September 11, 2001, and President Bush’s policy since then has reflected an adaptation to changing circumstances. His revival of government assassination policy is one example. The killing of terrorist leaders is a cruel necessity in a time of total war. As long as the government does not overextend itself or lose control of its agents, lethal covert operations will be a boon to fighting the war on terror. Assassination is a foreign policy tool that can be of great use to the United States and its people.

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Hamlet is Not a Tragedy

December 10, 2003

In labeling Hamlet a tragedy, critics portray the protagonist as a melancholy philosopher whose tragic flaw is his failure to turn thoughts into actions. Shakespeare loaded the play with uncertainties, however, and among them is whether Hamlet is a tragic hero. Whereas the traditional tragic hero is a great man who suffers a pitiful downfall because of a glaring flaw in his personality, Hamlet begins the play with nothing and leaves with everything. Though his need for absolute certainty before taking action is an encumbrance, it neither foils him nor directly causes his death. Hamlet is not a tragic hero; he is one of the “winners” of the play because he achieves all his goals: he fulfills his father’s requests to send Claudius to hell and leave Gertrude alone, commissions someone to tell his story, leaves the kingdom in capable hands, and dies.

The central conflict of the play is Hamlet’s quest to kill Claudius. Even before the young prince suspects his uncle of murder, Hamlet detests the man for helping his mother “post / With such dexterity to incestuous sheets” (I.ii.156-157) and makes it clear that he stays in Denmark only because his mother requests it (I.ii.118-119). After Old Hamlet tells his son that “If thou didst ever thy dear father love / … / Revenge his foul and most unnatural murder” (I.v.23-25), Hamlet pledges that executing this deed will become the top priority of his life (I.v.92-104). He makes Horatio and Marcellus swear to silence, directions the ghost agrees with and which they follow perfectly (I.v.142-186). An interesting caveat of the Ghost’s directions is his instruction to Hamlet to keep Gertrude alone: “Leave her to heaven / And to those thorns that in her bosom lodge / To prick and sting her” (I.v.86-88). By showing this mercy to his wife, the Ghost implies that he wants Claudius to suffer for his sins in hell; Hamlet remembers this when he finds Claudius praying in the chapel and spares his life rather than “take him in the purging of his soul, / When he is fit and seasoned for his passage” (III.iii.85-86). Though usually interpreted as weakness by Hamlet and the turning point of the play, this action reflects Hamlet’s desire to follow the full letter of his father’s demands. He mistakenly kills Polonius because he thinks the figure behind the curtain is Claudius (III.iv.25-33). After receiving a visit from the Ghost to accelerate the process of murder (III.iv.110-116), Hamlet reaffirms his motivation (IV.iv.32-66) and finally kills Claudius in one of his last acts before dying (V.ii.310-316). At this time, Hamlet finally fulfills this favor for his father and receives closure with his family.

Hamlet also honors his father’s secondary requests to care for Gertrude (I.v.84-88; III.iv.113-116). Though he resents abuses his mother, it is because of his shame for her indiscretions and his desire to show her the truth (I.ii.137-157, III.iv.54-101). Gertrude is shocked into change by his actions: “Thou turn’st mine eyes into my very soul, / And there I see such black and grainèd spots / As will not leave their tinct” (III.iv.90-92). She henceforth takes the Hamlets’ side in the blood feud, unfortunately resulting in her death (III.iv.182-210; III.v.22-27; V.ii.276-282, 297-301). Our protagonist does not like his mother, but he follows his father’s wishes and cares for her until the end (V.ii.300-301, 314-316).

Artists, like all men, are concerned with leaving a legacy to benefit future generations. Hamlet, an aspiring thespian and poet, leaves a spectacular one when he commissions Horatio to tell the tale of Denmark to the world (V.ii.331-338). Though he makes other attempts to contribute to humanity, such as scribbling “That one may smile, and smile, and be a villain” on a rock (I.v.107-9) and instructing the players in proper acting (III.ii.1-43), but these pale in comparison to the this tale, one “Of carnal, bloody, and unnatural acts, / Of accidental judgments, casual slaughters, / Of deaths put on by cunning and forced cause, / And, in this upshot, purposes mistook / Fall’n on th’ inventors’ heads” (V.ii.370-374). Almost immediately after Hamlet’s death, Horatio receives the opportunity to tell the story to Fortinbras and the other nobles (V.ii.364-384). Hamlet’s story will give wisdom to the new leaders of Denmark and the world; thus, the prince contributes to humanity even after his death.

By electing Fortinbras the next king of Denmark, Hamlet ensures the continued viability of his nation (V.ii.343-347). Though young Hamlet is never crowned king, he never laments this slight, seeming more interested in the health and reputation of his country than in doing the work to defend it; like Claudius, Hamlet allows Fortinbras to march an entire army through his country (II.ii.77-85; IV.iv.1-30). The prince shows concern for national prestige in his critique of the Danish bedtime drinking ritual (I.iv.13-38). Claudius misrules Denmark through his statecraft; the nation becomes so weak it hires Italian mercenaries (I.i.1-2), cannot stop Laertes and his mob from storming the throne room (IV.v.98-112), and falls to Norway while its most powerful governmental officials are killing each other in a worthless duel (V.ii.349-351). Fortinbras is a stark contrast: he is man of action who successfully revenges his father and a wise man who wants everyone to hear Hamlet’s tale (V.ii.375-376). He also has family rights to legitimize his rule (I.i.79-107; V.ii.378-379). Fortinbras is a wise choice by Hamlet for king of the Danes.

Critics cite Hamlet’s death as the most damning proof of his tragic downfall, but since he wishes for death throughout the play, this last act is actually a success (V.ii.345-347). That he is willing to devote his entire existence to killing his uncle reveals how little Hamlet, Son of Hamlet, values life (I.v.92-104; IV.iv.32-66). He contemplates suicide from his very first soliloquy: “O that this too too sullied flesh would melt, / Thaw, and resolve itself into a dew, / Or that the Everlasting had not fixed / His canon ‘gainst self-slaughter” (I.ii.129-132). He has “lost all [his] mirth” and considers Denmark a prison and himself “a king of infinite space” (II.ii.243-252, 292-299). In his famous “To be or not to be” speech, Hamlet asserts that life is sheer suffering, and man only bears it because he knows not what lies beyond (III.i.56-88). Hamlet sees death as “the undiscovered country” where all his questions will be answered and all men become equals (III.i.79; V.i.91-104, 170-183, 194-208). By the play’s end, he is fully ready for death: “There is special / providence in the fall of a sparrow. If it be now, ’tis not / to come; if it be not to come, it will be now; if it be not / now, yet it will come. The readiness is all. Since no man / of aught he leaves knows, what isn’t to leave betimes? Let / be” (V.ii.197-212). Death solidifies Hamlet’s peace with himself and his place in the world.

To most men, death is failure; to Hamlet, it is freedom. After Laertes poisons Hamlet and makes certain his destiny (V.ii.290-291), the prince accomplishes every one of his goals: he kills Claudius, gives wishes of love to his mother, passes on an inheritance of wisdom to the future, establishes a good leader as king of the country, and even wins the duel with Laertes (V.ii.300-302). With all his responsibilities fulfilled in life, Hamlet satisfies his ultimate commitment: dying. Hamlet’s life ends at its very peak. His actions are neither perfectly planned nor performed, but this inefficiency is what makes him realistic. Hamlet is not a tragedy; it is a recounting of the struggles and successes of a single man. The Prince of Denmark is neither an arch-knight nor a tragic hero; he is a human being doing his duty as best he can.