January 12, 2013


Targeted Killing and Drone Warfare (Michael Walzer, January 11, 2013, Dissent)

There are radical limits on political assassinations. In democracies, they can never be justified; it is only the blood of tyrants that waters the tree of liberty. And even with tyrants, a trial is preferable to an assassination whenever it is possible to bring down the tyrannical regime without killing its leader. In wartime, international law bars the killing of political leaders on the grounds that they are the ones who will in the end negotiate the peace treaty. But some political leaders, with whom one can't imagine negotiating, are legitimate targets--Hitler the obvious example. Killing Hitler would have been "extra-judicial" but entirely justified. Tyrants do have to be targeted, however; blowing up the neighborhood in which they live is not a moral option.

Military leaders are obviously legitimate targets in wartime. A sniper sent to a forward position to try to kill a visiting colonel or general is engaged in targeted killing, but no one will accuse him of acting extra-judicially and therefore wrongly. It is probably best to think of insurgent organizations in roughly the same way that we think about states. If they have separated their political and military leaders, it is only the second group who should be targeted since we may eventually negotiate with the first group. I don't believe that the same distinction is morally required in the case of terrorist organizations, though it may be prudent to make it. Individuals who plan, or organize, or recruit for, or participate in a terrorist attack are all of them legitimate targets. It would be better to capture them and bring them to trial, but that is often not a reasonable option--the risks are too high; innocent bystanders would be killed in the attempt; the planning would take time, and the terrorist attacks are imminent or actual. In cases like this, the phrase "war on terror" makes sense. More often, I think, the "war" is police work, and targeted killing is not permissible for the police. If the terrorist campaign has ended, only the police can deal with the men and women who organized it--and lawyers and judges after the police.

The targeted killing of insurgents and terrorists in wartime is subject to the same constraints as any other act of war. It will have to meet very strict standards of proportionality; given that the target is a single person, it will be difficult to justify any injury to innocent bystanders. So the targeting must be undertaken with great care; collecting information about the targeted individuals, their schedules, their whereabouts, their families and neighbors, is critically important, and if it involves risk for agents in the field, the risks must be accepted before the killing can be justified.

Now, does it make any difference if the actual killing is the work of a drone, operated by a technician sitting in an office 3,000 miles away? Surely the same criteria apply to the drone as to any more closely manned machine. Why should we think it different from the sniper's rifle? The difference is that killing-by-drone is so much easier than other forms of targeted killing. The easiness should make us uneasy. This is a dangerously tempting technology. It makes our enemies more vulnerable than ever before, and we can get at them without any risk to our own soldiers.

...that it is impossible to justify allowing any tyrants to survive.

Posted by at January 12, 2013 6:12 PM

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