Paul Campos’ response to Glenn Reynolds

More reaction to the call from a right-wing law professor for the assassination of Iranian scientists and clerics.

Topics: Washington, D.C.,

Last Tuesday, right-wing Law Professor Glenn Reynolds wrote a post calling for the murder of Iranian atomic scientists and “radical mullahs,” and I wrote about Reynolds’ “idea” here. On Monday of this week, University of Colorado Law School Professor Paul Campos wrote a column about Reynolds’ plan in The Rocky Mountain News. The column branded Reynolds “The Right’s Ward Churchill,” and documented the extremism and dishonesty which pervaded his “argument.”

Reynolds replied to Campos’ column three separate times, each time with increasing shrillness, dishonesty, and name-calling — first on his blog, then in a guest column in The Rocky Mountain News, and then again yesterday on his blog. He also repeatedly linked to multiple right-wing bloggers engaged in all sorts of name-calling attacks on Professor Campos. This morning, Professor Campos e-mailed me and asked if he could post his response to Reynolds on this blog, and I happily agreed. Following is Professor Campos’ reply:


Glenn Reynolds’ response to my column suggesting that it might strike some people as odd that a law professor is using lies to advocate murder is a classic of the genre: the genre in question being the unhinged polemic disguised as pseudo-academic discourse (It was Reynolds’ proclivity for this sort of thing that led me to point out the extent to which Reynolds and his ilk are right-wing versions of the infamous Ward Churchill — the difference being that you’ll never find Churchill within a thousand miles of any mainstream liberal or Democratic party figure, while Reynolds somehow remains the soul of Republican respectability).

One could linger over such symptomatic features as the pompous neologism (“beclowned”) deployed as a substitute for argument; the assumption that scholarly expertise can be acquired by a ten-minute Google search; the subsequent citation of “authorities” of whose existence the author was unaware ten minutes earlier; or the inevitable if rather surreal violation of Godwin’s Law (we bombed the Nazis so what’s wrong with assassinating Iranian civilians?). But let’s stick to Reynolds’ substantive claims, such as they are.

First, Reynolds argues there are circumstances under which government-sponsored assassination is both legal and morally defensible. Yet whatever merits that general claim might have, it has nothing to do with the legality and mortality of Reynolds’ specific recommendation that the United States government should be “quietly” assassinating Iranian mullahs and atomic scientists, today if not sooner. Obviously there is a world of difference between speculating on whether it would have made sense to assassinate, say, Saddam Hussein, or the Iranian head of state (presumably at some time when we weren’t funneling arms to them), and advocating the assassination of civilian research scientists.

As for Reynolds’ claim that killing scientists wouldn’t be murder because it’s only against the law until the law is changed, what can one say? Lawyers’ claims to find a statement shocking often sound a lot like Capt. Renault claiming to be shocked to discover there’s gambling in Casablanca, but I’m not saying this rhetorically: It’s shocking that a professor of law would dare make such a despicable argument in print. In fact assassinations are currently prohibited by law — something Reynolds cannot of course dispute — and the law would have to be changed before what Reynolds says our government should be doing at the present moment could even arguably begin to be considered legal.

Sensing, perhaps, that he’s saying something too ridiculous for his audience to swallow, Reynolds starts arguing in the alternative, by claiming that assassinating research scientists isn’t really assassination. His basis for this is the argument that when research scientists are present at legitimate military targets, their deaths from lawful military attacks on those targets aren’t assassinations. But this is about as relevant to his original argument as the claim that scientists who die from lung cancer because they smoked a lot haven’t been assassinated. Remember, Reynolds argued originally that we should be “quietly” terminating research scientists with extreme prejudice, and that this was preferable to, for example, bombing Iranian military installations. Yet the examples he gives of the legitimate killing of scientists all require precisely the course of action he claims his assassination scheme is designed to prevent.

Reynolds’ idea of a response to the fact that his scheme to “quietly” assassinate research scientists is an egregious violation of international law is to point out that a Reagan administration lawyer once said it was OK to try to drop a bomb on Moamar Quaddafi. If this is Reynolds’ idea of persuasive legal reasoning, how does he justify ever giving one of his students a poor grade?

That war is sometimes necessary doesn’t make it any less hideous. Yet it’s made even more hideous when nations make no effort to comply with the laws of war. Assassinating a research scientist is no more permissible under the laws of war than shaking the hand of an off-duty out-of-uniform soldier having a meal in a restaurant, hundreds of miles from a battlefield, and then shooting him in the head.

None of this has even touched on the fact that Reynolds’ central claims, upon which his whole argument hinges, are false. The United States isn’t at war with Iran, and the Iranian regime has never threatened to use nuclear weapons against our nation. My column emphasized these points, and in doing so essentially called Reynolds a liar. Yet he hasn’t even bothered to try to refute that charge — for the simple reason that he can’t.

And, since others have already done so, I won’t bother to elaborate on why Reynolds’ scheme, even if a respectable argument for its supposed legality could be found, is as a purely practical matter pretty much insane.

A final note: My column suggested that, given the support of people like Reynolds and Hugh Hewitt for disciplinary action against Ward Churchill, it wouldn’t be untoward to inquire if the University of Tennessee’s employment policies require unlimited toleration of, for example, a law professor who uses lies to justify murder. Again, this isn’t a rhetorical question: it genuinely interests me. Obviously, academic freedom isn’t unlimited. No one, I presume, would defend a professor’s “right” to, for instance, verbally abuse students with racial slurs, or to appropriate the work of others without proper citation, and so forth. And I certainly respect the views of people like Glenn Greenwald and Scott Lemieux, who if I understand them correctly go very far toward arguing that no expression of opinion per se should ever be a basis for the sanctioning of an academic. How far I myself would go in that direction is something on which, not being an administrator, I can afford to keep an open mind.

In the end, of course, it’s up to the University of Tennessee to decide whether the spectacle of a law professor using lies to justify murder is something of which they should deign take notice. In any case, that spectacle serves as a cautionary tale to the rest of us — of just how far it’s possible to sink in the defense of the indefensible.


Glenn Greenwald adds: I just want to underscore this paragraph of Professor Campos’ reply:

None of this has even touched on the fact that Reynolds’ central claims, upon which his whole argument hinges, are false. The United States isn’t at war with Iran, and the Iranian regime has never threatened to use nuclear weapons against our nation. My column emphasized these points, and in doing so essentially called Reynolds a liar. Yet he hasn’t even bothered to try to refute that charge — for the simple reason that he can’t.

As much as the extreme barbarism and amorality which lies at the heart of Reynolds’ call for assassination of Iranian scientists and clerics, it was the sheer dishonesty of his subsequent self-defense that prompted so much commentary. When defending himself from objections to his post (from me and others, none of whom he linked to despite complaining about Campos’ failure to link to his argument), Reynolds just asserted factually false claims, and — despite how unusual it is to see among law professors — Professor Campos expressly made clear what Reynolds was doing when defending himself: namely, “lying.”

Yet in all of his insulting responses to Professor Campos, Reynolds never addressed those charges, because there simply is no response. Then again, that accusation has been made about Reynolds so many times in the past that he may just not even notice it anymore when someone accuses him of dishonesty.

One of the most pressing problems we face in this country is that what was previously considered to be so radical and un-American as to be unthinkable has become perfectly mainstream and acceptable. Identifying truly warped extremism is of the greatest importance. Kudos to Professor Campos for his efforts towards these ends.

Glenn Greenwald

Follow Glenn Greenwald on Twitter: @ggreenwald.

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