The violent death of the fanatic who orchestrated the deaths of thousands of others has raised a set of critical ethical questions. Was the raid on the Abbottabad hideaway that claimed Osama bin Laden’s life an assassination? Or was the team of Navy Seals under instructions simply to apprehend Bin Laden, taking him alive, if possible, to be tried for the deadly terrorist acts he ordered? Or does it even matter whether the intent of the military team—and the president who ordered them in—was to kill or to capture?
A case has been made for the outright assassination of Bin Laden, a man with the declared intention of pursuing his deadly jihad against the West, if only to spare other innocent lives and forestall future mayhem. Even if an exception is allowed for summary execution in the case of Bin Laden, an exception most Americans seem all too ready to grant, we might do well to ask whether making such exceptions has now become the rule. Once critical of the extrajudicial killings in the Latin American “Dirty Wars” of the 1970s and ’80s, Americans have lost their inhibitions when it comes to today’s Islamic terrorists. The United States, which not so long ago condemned the targeted killing by Israelis of alleged terrorists, appears to have no qualms about itself calling down strikes against those regarded as hostile parties. In authorizing assassination attempts against suspected terrorist leaders, the United States is adopting the methods it finds so reprehensible in terrorist organizations.
State-ordered assassinations are not unprecedented in U.S. history. The committee headed by Senator Frank Church, organized in 1975 to investigate U.S. government-sponsored assassination, uncovered a long list of foreign leaders who had been targeted for elimination. Ngo Dinh Diem of South Vietnam, Patrice Lumumba of the Congo and Fidel Castro of Cuba were among the most prominent. The Church committee findings so shocked the country that every president from Jimmy Carter through Bill Clinton issued executive orders prohibiting government-ordered assassinations.
With the declaration of the “war on terror” a decade ago, all that changed. Within a week of the attacks on Sept. 11, 2001, Congress passed the Authorization and Use of Military Force Act, which authorized the president to take “all necessary and appropriate action” against Al Qaeda and other terrorist organizations. In effect, this was a declaration of war.
Since then, targeted killings—in a nonmilitary context they would be called assassinations—have proliferated wildly. Since 2001, 1,500 suspected terrorists have been killed by drones, unmanned planes capable of far greater precision with their laser-guided weapons than conventional bombing or missile raids. The change in administration in 2008 has only brought about an expansion in targeted killings. In the past two years Mr. Obama has ordered four times as many strikes as George W. Bush did during his entire eight years in office.
The collateral damage from these raids has been well publicized: the recent killing of some 20 Pakistanis at a rural council meeting, for example, and dozens of innocent lives taken in earlier raids targeting Bin Laden. But possibly the greatest collateral damage is that done to the ethical principles that the United States has long held dear.
The principled argument against targeted killing is that it opens the door for secret, arbitrary murders with no accountability for those who order them. There is a slippery slope from justified execution of known public enemies by executive order to tyrannical power. President Obama has already extended his authority to assassinate terrorists who are American citizens. He is considered a man of restraint, but what if someone less reflective or with less self-control stood in his shoes? And what of those who carry out “black ops” under presidential authority? Innocents have been killed unintentionally during such operations, and assailants have sometimes executed the wrong “target.” Those deaths are reason enough to be wary of a policy of targeted killing. But the ideal of free government, at the heart of which stands the denial to rulers of arbitrary power over life and limb, should hold Americans back all the more.
At the end of World War II, President Harry Truman insisted that the Nazi leaders responsible for the greatest horror of the last century be brought to trial at Nuremburg rather than summarily hanged, as some suggested. Yet the elevation of national security in this age of protracted terrorism has brought about a change in the rules. Before the United States accepts targeted killing as a standard response in its latest “war,” it would do well to reflect more deeply on the issue. Hard cases make bad policy. American principles and a long history of moral reflection in the West suggest that this practice should never be the rule.