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A few quiet little murders


I can only imagine the pride with which University of Tennessee law professor Glenn Reynolds, aka Instapundit, must peruse the front pages of our national newspapers, now that he can read on a regular basis about the wholesale adoption of one half of his splendid plan to “quietly kill radical mullahs and Iranian atomic scientists.”

It is of course an open question of whether and to what extent the U.S. government is involved in this series of murders:

A former senior intelligence official involved in efforts to thwart Iran’s nuclear program told ABC News that assassinations of top Iranian scientists were usually assumed to be the work of Israel, but that the Israelis would never confirm or admit responsibility.

“Every time we ask,” said the official, “they just smile and say, ‘We have no idea what you are talking about.’ ”

The U.S., for its part, has officially denied any involvement in the deaths of Iranian scientists. A White House spokesman called the accusations “absurd” after Mohammadi’s death. The CIA is known, however, to have recruited scientists as spies.

In 2007, after Iranian General Ali-Reza Asgari went missing in Turkey, the Iranian government said the intelligence official had been kidnapped by Mossad. The Israeli and Western media said he had defected, and was busy providing information on Iran’s nuclear program.

Two years later, award-winning Iranian nuclear scientist Shahram Amiri disappeared while on a pilgrimage to Mecca. He later resurfaced in the United States after defecting to the CIA in return for a large sum of money, according to people briefed on the operation by intelligence officials. A spokesperson for the CIA declined official comment.

Still, it’s rare for a legal academic to see his policy recommendations adopted so wholeheartedly, either by his own government or by a client state.

I have little to add to what Glenn Greenwald has to say about this, but I do want to address a related issue, which is the extent to which academic freedom does or ought to insulate academics from any professional consequences for their actions, in cases where those actions include things like enthusiastically recommending the murder of members of a very small group of specific individuals, especially in a case in which those murders then in fact take place, or playing a key role in bringing about, in flagrant violation of both domestic and international law, a formal system by which the U.S. government repeatedly tortured, under color of law, various prisoners in its custody.

Back when Prof. Reynolds so enthusiastically (and, in turns out in retrospect, quite successfully) first advocated murdering certain specific people, I asked whether one might want to inquire into whether advocating murder — not in some abstract, theoretical way, but in a very individualized, concrete, and one might even say personal manner — was an act that was absolutely protected by considerations of academic freedom. This wasn’t a rhetorical question: the matter genuinely interested me then, and, for obvious reasons, interests me even more so today.

When Prof. John Yoo returned to his academic sinecure after playing his part in transforming the United States government into an enthusiastic practitioner of the various arts involved in torturing captive and helpless human beings, I asked a similar question:

Now Yoo is now back at UC Berkeley, where he taught before joining the Bush administration. He is molding the minds of the next generation of lawyers. The school has no plans to do any inquiry of its own into Yoo’s behavior, or even to modify the professor’s teaching schedule, other than to keep the time and location of Yoo’s classes off the school’s Web site, in order to discourage protesters.

Yoo’s continuing and apparently permanent position on the faculty of one of the nation’s leading law schools does have some significant educational value for his students. For one thing, I am reliably informed that, when he’s not busy arguing that the president has the legal authority to massacre villages and crush the testicles of children, Professor Yoo teaches a very fine class in civil procedure.

In retrospect, I’m sorry I ever raised any questions regarding the potential limits of academic freedom in these cases. Such questions are, under the circumstances, a distraction. We live in a country where law professors advocate torturing and murdering people (unfortunately we have now sunk to a depth where it’s necessary to note that torture and murder remain crimes even when they’re committed by U.S. government officials in the course of performing their official duties), people are then duly tortured and murdered per their official and unofficial recommendations, and there are no subsequent legal or even professional consequences to anyone involved in any aspect of these proceedings. This illustrates the extent to which, in America today, even the most atrocious crimes are simply not crimes at all if they are committed by sufficiently important people:

If you’re a person of high social status and have good enough political connections, nothing will happen to you even if you commit the most serious crimes. This applies even more obviously to Yoo’s former White House employers, but the fact that it’s impossible in this country to levy even the mildest professional sanctions against a mere law professor illustrates the absurdity of imagining it might be possible to ever actually prosecute the likes of Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld.

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