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When Scientists Go Rogue, Is Assassinating Them Ever Justified?

Someone has declared an unofficial war on Iranian nuclear scientists. Is violence aimed at scientists engaged in objectionable activities legitimate public policy?

When scientists go rogue, is assassinating them ever justified?

The answer: it depends.

In the case of Iran’s murdered physicists, someone has decided to draw a bright line – and the reason is whether such a line is justifiable.

A bit of background: In January, Iran announced that one of its government scientists, presumably working on building the country’s first nuclear weapons, was killed when his car blew up on his way to work at a nuclear “enrichment” facility. The assassination –- apparently carried out by a masked person on a motorbike who planted a bomb on the scientist’s car -- is believed to be the fourth such murder of an Iranian physicist in the past two years.

No one has claimed responsibility for the killing of these scientists, though suspicion has fallen on the government of Israel and even on the government of the U.S., which denies having any role in the attacks. Whomever is behind these attacks – and the world may never know for certain -- one conclusion seems certain: Some group or government has declared an unofficial war on Iranian nuclear scientists, raising the question whether direct violence, aimed at scientists engaged in objectionable activities, is a legitimate public policy or practical aim.

The prospect that more Iranian scientists will be killed – perhaps, as Jeffrey Goldberg of The Atlantic has suggested, in order to “convince Iranian nuclear scientists to seek other lines of work” -- brings to new meaning to the term “science wars,” which has generally covered verbal and political attacks on scientists, not violent ones.

The assassination of Iranian nuclear scientists might be dismissed as a special case, a new form of promoting “non-proliferation” of nuclear weapons by killing the scientists involved. Once the purview of diplomats and treaty negotiators, traditional policies towards non-proliferation have fallen on hard times. India, Pakistan and North Korea each developed their own nuclear arsenals in spite of the existence of vigorous opposition by the non-proliferation community. But these opponents strictly relied on diplomacy, rule of law and negotiation – not by targeting Indian, Pakistani or Korean scientists individually and picking them off one by one.

What has changed so that now targeting scientists is an option for a U.S. government trying to limit the spread nuclear weapons – and especially to keep them out of Iranian hands?

One major shift is in the culture of science and scientists around the world. During the long Cold War, when U.S. and Soviet scientists both competed (intensely) on building new weapons and cooperated (to a limited extent) on controlling these weapons, there was a shared understanding that scientists on both sides of the Iron Curtain shared a common heritage and values. David Holloway’s classic account of the Soviet nuclear enterprise, Stalin and the Bomb (1995), suggests that Soviet scientists were animated by the same kind of idealism and sense of national purpose that shaped the work of American bomb scientists at Livermore and Los Alamos.

Both sides also were animated by fear. The Americans feared that Nazi scientists might build a bomb first (they did not). At the same time, the scientific leadership of the Soviet bomb were scheduled for execution in the event that the first Soviet test, in 1949, proved to be a dud. So fear competed with idealism on both sides of the Cold War.

Because Soviet and U.S. scientists and engineers shared common backgrounds and intellectual horizons – participating in a  “republic of science” that transcended borders -- the U.S. government spent a great deal of time and effort communicating and even wooing Soviet scientists. Similarly, today American universities spend a great deal of time and effort assisting, training and sometimes collaborating with Chinese scientists.

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