It Is Time for A Romero Amendment
Published on Friday, August 26, 2005 by
It Is Time for A Romero Amendment
by Craig Wiesner
During lunch with a dear friend, who usually sits on the opposite side of the table and typically on a vastly different side of most political debates, we discussed assassination. I am completely and unalterably against assassination. When I stated that belief, my friend came up with the standard "Wouldn't you have killed Hitler, if you had the chance to take him out before he slaughtered all those people?"

Pat Robertson invoked that same situation this week, as he tried to justify his call for the assassination of Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez. Robertson also mentioned the case of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a Protestant theologian who had been executed because he was part of an underground movement attempting to assassinate Hitler. My life-partner, who has studied and lectured on the German Christian movement and Bonhoeffer, quipped “I’ve studied Bonhoeffer. I have friends who knew Bonhoeffer. Pat Robertson is no Dietrich Bonhoeffer.”

Still, the question about killing Hitler has been a tough one for me. After all, it is possible that with the death of that one man, millions might have been saved. Of course like most answers a Jewish person gives to almost any question, my answer comes in the form of a few more questions.

"Would it be OK for President Bush to order the military to kill you, simply because he believed you might be the next Hitler? Do you want to give one man the right to make that decision?" And, to my more conservative Republican friends I would ask “Would you ever trust Hillary Clinton to make that decision?”

One thing most Americans don’t realize is that every president does, in fact, have that power. With the stroke of a pen, the president can order anyone outside the United States to be killed. There is no U.S. law against it and we all know how much we currently adhere to international laws.

There is an executive order, first drafted by President Gerald Ford and updated by Presidents Carter and Reagan that prohibits anyone working for or on behalf of the government to engage in or conspire to engage in assassinations. However, an executive order can be set aside at any time by the president through what is known as an intelligence “finding.”

According to the Council on Foreign Relations, Presidents Reagan, Clinton and Bush have all signed such findings, ordering the CIA or military to carry out targeted killings, assassinations. The car full of “terrorists” that was targeted by a missile fired from an unmanned drone in Yemen was probably the result of such a finding. Americans need to understand that one person, the President, without any Congressional oversight whatsoever, can order the killing of any human being on the planet, outside the United States.

Advocates of maintaining the status quo on assassination will claim that the President would only order an assassination based on specific intelligence indicating that a person or group was about to commit a terrorist act. Given how our intelligence about Iraq has turned out to be “dead wrong,” do we really want to continue giving the president the authority to kill people based on such intelligence?

Once you give a single person the unfettered ability to kill an individual he or she considers a threat, with absolutely no due process, what's to stop the government from killing you or someone you love? Jews were considered a threat to the future of the world and the Nazis decided it was OK to kill them. Six million were slaughtered because a government believed it had the right to round up and kill anyone it deemed a threat.

Of course it is hard for people to empathize and believe that someone they know and love could be the target of a government assassin. For my dear friend sitting across the table, I reminded him of yet another person with whom we had broken bread several times. Our friend from Central America, now in the United States, once was determined to be a threat to his native country and to U.S. interests in that land.

Our government has been alleged by many to have been deeply involved in the training and funding of death squads in Central America during the 80's. Our friend had attended college in East Germany. Upon returning to his native land in Central America, he was labeled a "Communist Intellectual Christian" and an enemy of the state. He was arrested, tortured, and held for a very long time. The day he was released he arrived home to find his wife and child packing. Someone had warned them that a death squad was coming to finish them off, or as Pat Robertson put it, to “take them out.” They fled. That day according to neighbors, the squad came but found the apartment empty.

Six years ago I sat in the darkened home of a Salvadoran family, and in the flickering light of a single candle, I heard stories of death squads coming into villages. Masked militia would capture, rape and torture “communist sympathizers.” As one man was being tortured, he heard the whispering voices of “North Americans” telling his captors what to do to him. He lived to tell the story. Many didn’t.

Archbishop Oscar Romero is the most well known of the Salvadoran martyrs, assassinated because he was too outspoken and stood on the side of the poor.

Several years ago, I sat on a panel in San Francisco with a former member of U.S. Special Forces. I was there to talk about my recent trip to Afghanistan. He was there to talk about his “past sins” as a soldier in Central America. Having been in the United States Air Force from 1979 through 1987, I had believed that torture and assassination were prohibited and found it hard to believe that my brothers and sisters in arms could possibly have been involved in such things. Yet now I had heard directly from Salvadoran victims and their American torturer. The circle of truth was now completed for me and my naiveté finally and fully broken down.

No government should have the absolute power to select an individual and mark that person to be killed without due process. When wars end we have war crime trials to bring criminals to justice. My own Jewish father guarded German officers at Dachau during their war crime trials. We could simply have executed all the Nazis captured there, but we chose not to. Instead, we demonstrated to the world that the rule of law prevails.

It is time for the American people to demand that Congress take up this issue. Presidents are not gods and they should not have the power to order the death of another human being with the stroke of a pen or the wink of an eye.

We’re better than that.

Some good can come from Pat Robertson's call for murder. People of faith across this great nation should demand that Congress introduce legislation codifying the existing executive orders against assassination. The language is simple. It should be a crime for anyone employed by or working on behalf of the United States government to engage in or conspire to engage in assassination.

Some brave member of Congress can slip this in as an amendment to an appropriations bill. It could even be called the Romero amendment.


Craig Wiesner is a veteran of the United States Air Force where he served as a Korean Linguist from 1979-1987. He received two Air Force Achievement medals and the Joint Service Achievement medal during his career and was the John Levitow honor graduate from the Air Force Leadership School in 1986. Craig is the co-founder of Reach And Teach, an education company dedicated to peace and social justice. He is on the board of Multifaith Voices for Peace and Justice, an interfaith peace organization based in Palo Alto California. Craig is a frequent contributor to the KQED (National Public Radio) perspective series.