Dubai's Hollywood Hitmen

The murder of a Hamas leader by 17 assassins in a hotel room could have been ripped from a movie. James Carroll laments  targeted killings inspired by the big screen.

Hatem Moussa / AP Photo

The now-infamous Dubai hit, in which a leading Hamas military commander was smothered with a pillow in his luxury hotel room in January, was like a thriller starring Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie—and that’s the point. This week, Dubai police charged that the assassination of Mahmoud al-Mabhouh, a man Israel blames for masterminding the import of lethal rockets into Gaza, was carried out by a squad of 17 internationals—including at least one comely blond woman. Their disguises as tennis players and rich tourists, and their precisely timed movements through numerous other posh hotels as they trailed their prey, then set him up, were intimately tracked on multiple security cameras. Dubai police made the video clips public. Such surveillance showed that the conspirators all quickly fled the Gulf state within hours of the killing. Dubai officials readily determined that the conspirators used multiple forged passports, swapping identities and disguises on the go. They traveled in pairs or singly, and headed off to separate destinations in Europe, Asia, and Africa. Scot free. High fives all around. It was The Bourne Identity meets Oceans 11.

What, actually, is the ethical difference between the hotel room hit and the now-routine U.S. practice of assassination-by-drone?

The front page headline in Friday’s Jerusalem Post had the Dubai police chief demanding the arrest of the head of Mossad, the Israeli secret intelligence agency, but Israel refuses either to confirm or deny involvement in the assassination. In fact, the real furor arises from diplomatic protests from the European countries whose passports were faked in the operation. “Envoys stonewall in London, Dublin,” read another headline. “France, Germany want explanations.”

The misuse of passports trumps the actual murder as a source of international anger. Good riddance, Mahmoud al-Mabhouh. After all, who would complain if Osama bin Laden were eliminated in such a fashion? And what, actually, is the ethical difference between the hotel room hit and the now-routine U.S. practice of assassination-by-drone? As fears attached to terrorism have escalated, and as terrorists themselves have obliterated any pretense of moral restraint, nations, too, have renewed their embrace of an ends-justify-the-means morality. Civic culture, meanwhile, takes less and less offense at the outlaw behavior of governments.

That’s where Brad and Angelina come in—along with Matt and Clint and Julia. “We’re all thrilled by Mossad the movie,” as a Times of London op-ed piece (breathlessly cited in the Jerusalem Post) put it this week. “What the secret agents did—and, critically, what we saw them do—was compelling and breathtaking in its cleverness. Box office, in other words.” Lawlessness, mostly in the name of virtue, defines the heart of action entertainment. Good guys killing bad guys, the hell with the law—it’s fun. Even better when the snappy rogues get away with it. But, also, such pulse-pounding adventure is a battering ram against the central bulwark of a civilized society. Sorry to throw a damper on the popcorn. Something bad is happening to us—at the movies and in our nations.

Individual crimes, for the sake of justice, have their equivalent in the social crimes of the increasingly routine irregularities of “asymmetrical wars.” As it refuses to confirm or deny assassinations, Israel refuses to submit its actions in last year’s Gaza war—Operation Cast Lead—to the test of objective legal critique. But the United States, too, over the last decade, has blatantly retreated from internationally agreed standards of wartime law, and rejects any reckoning, past or present. Once, when enemies threatened with unscrupulous methods, it was clear that the only real protection was a refusal to match their unscrupulosity. But the careful procedures of law, carried out by agents held to account, are unsatisfying as drama, and inefficient as policy. Law is for wimps. War is for, well, warriors. When, in response to such a dynamic, the citizenry morphs into a blood-cheering audience, escape from reality replaces the project of building a just society as nation’s main activity. Protecting distinctions between ends and means, and keeping them properly aligned—who cares? Better to go in blasting, or with a pillow in hand, assured of a clean getaway.

James Carroll's recent book is Practicing Catholic, a story of American belief. He is a columnist for the Boston Globe and distinguished scholar-in-residence at Suffolk University. His other books include An American Requiem, which won the National Book Award, House of War, winner of the PEN-Galbraith Award, and Constantine's Sword, now an acclaimed documentary.