August 25, 2005

Robertson, Bonhoeffer and "taking out" dictators

Theologians can debate whether it counts technically as bearing false witness against the AP, but in this passage from his show yesterday (8/24/2005), Pat Robertson certainly seems to be straying from the intent of the ninth commandment. The relevant portion of the transcript:

Thor Halvorssen: Essentially, Hugo Chavez has turned Venezuela into a dictatorship. Now, I think that it's very important to also note that your comments were about assassination. The person- I think that alternative is lowering to his level-
Pat Robertson: Uh I didn't say "assassination", I said our- our special forces should quote "take him out", and "take him out" can be a l- a number of things including kidnapping, there are a number of ways to take out a dictator from power besides killing him. Uh I was misinterpreted by the AP, but that happens all the time.

What Pat actually said on 8/22/2005 was:

Thanks, Dale. If you look back just a few years, there was a popular coup that overthrew him and what did the United States State Department do about it? Virtually nothing. And as a result, within about forty eight hours that coup was broken, Chavez was back in power; but we had a chance to move in; he has destroyed the Venezuelan economy, and he's going to make that a launching pad for communist infiltration and- and uh muslim extremism all over the continent. You know, I don't know about this doctrine of assassination, but if he thinks we're trying to assassinate him, I think that we really ought to go ahead and do it, it's a whole lot cheaper than starting a war, and uh uh I don't think any oil shipments will stop. But this man is a terrific danger, and the United- this is in our sphere of influence, and we can't let this happen. We have the Monroe Doctrine, we have other doctrines that we have announced, and uh without question, this is a dangerous uh enemy to our south controlling a huge pool of oil, that could hurt us very badly. We have the ability to take him out, and I think the time has come that we exercise that ability. We don't need another two hundred billion dollar war uh to get rid of one you know, strong-arm dictator. It's a whole lot easier to have some of the covert operatives do the job and then get it over with. Kristi? [emphasis added]

It's hard to listen to this passage and understand "take him out" to mean anything other than "kill him". It's true that "to take someone out" can mean to escort them on a date, and that a football block can take someone out of a play. Googling "took him out of the" gives us completions like "the chariot", "the town", "the school", "the picture", "the fraternity", "the crate" and so on. However, the obvious meaning in this context was "assassinate".

And in any case, the first quote given in the 8/22/2005 AP story was not the "take him out" business, but this:

"You know, I don't know about this doctrine of assassination, but if he thinks we're trying to assassinate him, I think that we really ought to go ahead and do it," Robertson said. "It's a whole lot cheaper than starting a war ... and I don't think any oil shipments will stop."

Aside from cleaning up a few uhs, the AP quote is completely accurate, and gives the lie to Robertson's assertion that "I didn't say 'assassination'".

It's especially curious that Robertson makes this feeble attempt to deny his own words, given that a few minutes earlier in the same (8/24/2005) show he sketches a justification for assassination, based on the ethical theory and practice of Dietrich Bonhoeffer:

Ladies and gentlemen, you can see Dale's full story on, and uh a number of people have expressed their opinions about Chavez, including a man named Thor Halvorssen. He's a Venezuelan and president of the Human Rights Foundation, and he's going to join us in just a minute from New York, but before I get to that, I want to tell you about a statement of uh the great Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who suffered under Adolf Hitler, and wondered what would be the case of a wicked dictator like Hitler, how would Christians react to that. And uh Dietrich Bonhoeffer is reported to have said "if you see a car going out of control, and heading toward a group of people, do you try to stop the car or ((do)) you console the victims after it hits them?" And he said after weighing the moral consequences of that, he determined it would be better to stop the car and therefore he allied himself with those who were attempting to assassinate Adolf Hitler, and to take this monster off the world stage. That by the way cost uh this brave soldier of the cross his life, because one did not speak out against Adolf Hitler.

You can read more about Dietrich Bonhoeffer here and here. According to the second link, Bonhoeffer was indeed hung, not for speaking out against Hitler, but for participating in a plot to assassinate him:

Bonhoeffer's role in the conspiracy was one of courier and diplomat to the British government on behalf of the resistance, since Allied support was essential to stopping the war. Between trips abroad for the resistance, Bonhoeffer stayed at Ettal, a Benedictine monastery outside of Munich, where he worked on his book, Ethics, from 1940 until his arrest in 1943. Bonhoeffer, in effect, was formulating the ethical basis for when the performance of certain extreme actions, such as political assassination, were required of a morally responsible person, while at the same time attempting to overthrow the Third Reich in what everyone expected to be a very bloody coup d'etat. This combination of action and thought surely qualifies as one of the more unique moments in intellectual history.

The car story seems to come from a memoir by G. Leibholz, reproduced in the beginning of The Cost of Discipleship, where he writes of Bonhoeffer (in the English translation)

As he used to say: it is not only my task to look after the victims of madmen who drive a motorcar in a crowded street, but to do all in my power to stop their driving at all.

Shortly after Robertson's Bonhoeffer passage, when Halvorssen objects to the assassination idea, Robertson doesn't deny it (link):

Thor Halvorssen: Now I- I did wanted to mention, Pat, that the report filed by Dale Hurd yesterday, that aired on CBN, is without question one of the most accurate um reports that have appeared in the media; certainly a lot more accurate and uh alarming than what has appeared in the mainstream media; and for that I would like to commend you. Uh by the same token, I would categorically like to say that I- I disagree with you on uh in terms of the solution to some of these issues and I do not think that assassination is- is a- the route that any country should take in the case of Chavez.
Pat Robertson: Well I appreciate that; what would you do to stop him?

So it's all the stranger that he breaks in later to claim that he didn't say what his own archives clearly documents him as saying. I can't imagine Bonhoeffer attempting to deny his own words in the way that Robertson has done.

[Update: as Timothy Noah points out in Slate, Robertson also appeals to the example of Bonhoeffer in the text of his official apology. In fact, Robertson's statement says that calling for assassination was wrong:

Is it right to call for assassination? No, and I apologize for that statement. I spoke in frustration that we should accommodate the man who thinks the U.S. is out to kill him.

but never that performing an assassination would be wrong; and the extended discussion of Bonhoeffer that follows makes Robertson's views on that matter clear enough. This is a non-apology of a different kind than those that Geoff Pullum dissected earlier: it does indeed have the grammatical form of an apology. It's rather like saying "I apologize for calling you a liar. I spoke in frustration, because I was upset about all the times you said things that aren't true." ]

Posted by Mark Liberman at August 25, 2005 12:39 AM