A disturbing number of people who have stood up to Vladimir Putin have been mysteriously shot in the head, fallen from windows, committed suicides that maybe weren't, been autopsied and found to have rare lethal flowers in their stomach contents. But a murder linked to Putin which more than any other, happened in relatively plain sight, was that of Alexander Litvenenko, who had tea in London with a Putin emissary, Andrey Lugovoy, and then died within weeks of polonium-210 poisoning. Polonium-210 is invisible to ordinary radiation detectors, because it emits very few gamma rays. Once they knew what they were looking for, "Detectives traced three distinct polonium trails in and out of London, at three different dates, which according to the investigation suggests Andrey Lugovoy and Dmitry Kovtun made two failed attempts to administer polonium to Litvinenko before the final and successful one". Traces of radioactivity were found in their hotel rooms.Lugovoy today is a member of the Russian Duma. In 2015, Putin awarded Lugovoy a "medal 'for services to the fatherland,' second degree".
People in Putin's position in the chain of command have been convicted of ordering murder, beyond a reasonable doubt, on evidence trails no more substantial than this. In an American prosecution, a DA might have succeeded in turning the man who carried out the killing, and using his testimony against the man who gave the order. In Vladimir Putin's world, Lugovoy lives free and honored for his services.
Now that Putin is a populist hero to Donald Trump, the alt right and much of Trump's Republican base, there are only two answers to the question, Is it acceptable for us to consort with someone who murders dissidents? One answer would be No, it isn't, but Putin is innocent of any such behavior. It is hard to believe at this late date that anyone can say this with a straight face, but it is at least an answer. The other answer, rarely given, but more honest if morally appalling, would be a simple "Yes, murder is an appropriate tool of policy". The third response is mere silence and changing of the subject, as if the interlocutor had said something crude and impolite. This is the approach taken by most of Trump's cohorts, his vice president, cabinet, and press spokespeople, and many of the pro-Trump talking heads in America: the more mainstream they are, the more silent.
Trump, however, has clearly ranged himself in the defiantly truthful category of those to whom murder is acceptable. When Bill O'Reilly said, Putin is "a killer," Trump replied: ""There are a lot of killers. You think our country's so innocent?" He said during the campaign, "He's running his country and at least he's a leader, unlike what we have in this country".
Another example of Trump praising murder was his compliment to President Duterte of the Philippines. Trump told him on a phone call: "You are a good man," doing an unbelievable job on the drug problem. Human Rights Watch says: "Since the inauguration of President Rodrigo Duterte on June 30, 2016, and his call for a 'war on drugs,' Philippine National Police officers and unidentified 'vigilantes' have killed over 7,000 people".
I would like to pause there for a moment: our president supports murder, thinks killing people who oppose you is a Fine Idea. This is not all right and never will be. Neither is the zone of silence around that created by Mike Pence, James Mattis, Betsy DeVos, Sean Spicer, Paul Ryan, Mitch McConnell and the professedly devout Sarah Huckabee Sanders. Nor is the "he's what we have, let's work, he just talks loud" excuses of some pundits, or the "He's unjustly attacked" counterattacks of Sean Hannity. To each of them: "Your man suppports murder. Do you?" This is, like the age of AIDS, another time in which Silence = Death.
Don't argue prior Presidents to me. Nixon, of course, did everything he could do to make sure Pinochet of Chile could murder freely. Today the helicopters from which Pinochet's secret police threw protesters into the sea have become a meme among Trump supporters on the alt right: "[T]he phrase ['Free Helicopter Rides']is often used by members of the alt-right in jokes about executing their political opponents.... On June 16th, 2015, the 'Pinochet Helicopter Rides and Rentals' Facebook page was launched, featuring jokes about the dictator throwing people from helicopters". Kennedy envisaged the murder of Fidel Castro in various colorful ways (and what goes around may have come around). Even bland, friendly Eisenhower may have ordered a killing of a democratically elected leader (we have countenanced many): in 1975, an NSC staff member testified to the Church Committee that President Eisenhower had ordered the assassination of Congolese leader Patrice Lumumba at an August 18, 1960, NSC meeting, Athan Theoharis, Spying on Americans (Philadelphia: Temple University Press 1978) p. xii, a directive not captured in the minutes which, another senior staffer testified, would in highly sensitive cases contain no reference to the subject. p. xiii
What's your point? Everyone does it? If that's what you are arguing, I reply, it wasn't all right then, and will never be all right, and that the murderousness of those presidents led to, gave us, Donald Trump, in the blink of a historical eye.
Praising and justifying murder is a toxic and infectious behavior, divided by just a hair's breadth at best from the next settings, of soliciting murder than just plain ordering it. The zone of soliciting murder involves using vivid, violent rhetoric that envisions it, and then daydreaming out loud: Henry II asking rhetorically Will no one rid me of this troublesome priest? only to disclaim responsibility when Becket is murdered, Vice President Agnew saying, Next time a mob of students waving their non-negotiable demands starts pitching rocks and bricks at the student union, just imagine they're wearing brown shirts or white sheets and act accordingly just days before the Kent State killings. Clara Bingham, Witness to the Revolution (New York: Random House 2016) p. 352 Trump lives, thrives, in this solicitation zone, calling for protesters to be roughed up at his campaign events.
And we all know what ordering murder looks like; I didn't need to give more examples; let Putin and Duterte stand for that.
A year ago, I wrote an essay here in which I asked a series of "What would stop Trump from..." questions. What would stop Trump from calling on the people who believe everything he says, and own semi-automatic weapons, who are more than nominal in numbers, to rise up and form militias to "defend" him and America? A Duterte move here at home? If Trump gives that hint or that order, it seems as if there are tens or hundreds of thousands of Americans who would try to carry it out, and millions who would applaud them.
Certainly, since Trump praises murder, there are no internal moral limits which would stop him. He rarely seems to have any practical idea where to stop. The people around him seem both ambitious and craven to the point of betting their own reputations on his, rather than providing any kind of strong push-back, like the traditional German right which imagined Hitler was their madman, who could never kill them. Right now we seem to be betting the country on the proposition that Donald Trump is too weak, too vain, too preoccupied complaining, actually to behave like his idols Putin and Duterte, actually to give the order.