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Difficult to Draw a Bead on Issue of Targeted Killings

Assassinations can be justified, but limits must be placed on these actions.

September 08, 2003|Michael Walzer

No one can be happy about the targeted killings that are now official policy in the war against terrorism. Israel has made the practice notorious, but the United States, after criticizing Israeli policy, has also adopted it. And I suspect that other countries have done so as well, or will, under terrorist threat.

It's difficult to know what to make of these killings. Are they military attacks or civilian assassinations?

Clearly, they are better than untargeted killings: Aiming at particular people, thought to be guilty of criminal acts, is more justifiable than aiming indiscriminately at people, some of whom are sure to be innocent. What's more, if the targets are active terrorists -- leaders of Al Qaeda, for example, or of the Palestinian militant group Hamas -- then their deaths today may prevent or at least postpone future attacks.

Still, the killings are problematic because they look like executions without the benefit of judge or jury.

Consider the case of the six Al Qaeda activists (so the U.S. described them) killed by a Hellfire missile in Yemen in November. Had the same attack taken place in Afghanistan one year earlier, it would have been universally viewed as an act of war. Assuming that the six people killed were correctly identified, we would not have thought that it was wrong or problematic. It is part of the awfulness of war that people actively engaged on the other side can be legitimately killed. Sometimes it is possible to offer them a chance to surrender, but in many large battles, night raids and attacks from the air it isn't.

Now imagine that the same Al Qaeda terrorists had been located in Philadelphia, and U.S. officials had launched the same Hellfire attack on them there. That would not be an act of war, and it would not be legitimate. We would be horrified; the attack would be a political crime. That's because here in our own country, we would want the suspected terrorists to be arrested, arraigned, provided with lawyers and brought to trial.

Yemen is somewhere between Afghanistan and Philadelphia. It isn't a war zone, but it also isn't a zone of peace. In large areas of the country, government writ doesn't function; there are no police who could make arrests and no courts in which prisoners could expect a fair trial. This is a lawless land, and lawlessness provides a refuge for the political criminals whom we call terrorists.

The best way to deal with the problem is to help the Yemeni government police its own territory. But that is a long process, and in the aftermath of 9/11, it doesn't seem morally wrong to go after Al Qaeda militants directly. We can plausibly say they were the ones who declared war on us.

But, but ... it can't be that easy. There are two critically important limits on this acceptance of targeted killings. It has to be radically circumscribed because governments, once they learn to kill, are likely to kill too much and too often.

The first limit is implied by the word "targeted." We have to be as sure as we can be, without judge and jury, that the people we are aiming at are really Al Qaeda militants or, more generally, that they are engaged in planning and carrying out terrorist attacks. In 1973, Israeli agents killed a Moroccan waiter in Lillehammer, Norway, thinking that he was the head of PLO security. But they can't have been certain; mistakes like that have to be avoided.

The second limit is even more important. We have to be as sure as we can that we are able to hit the targeted person without killing innocent people in the vicinity. Here I think we have to adopt standards that are closer to Philadelphia than to Afghanistan. In a war zone, what is euphemistically called "collateral damage" cannot be avoided; it can only be reduced. The hard question is what degree of risk we are willing to accept for our own soldiers in order to reduce the risks we impose on enemy civilians. But when the police are chasing criminals in a zone of peace, we rightly give them no latitude for collateral damage. They are not supposed to endanger civilians even if that prohibition makes things more dangerous for themselves -- and even if it means that the criminals get away.

That seems to me the right rule for people planning and carrying out targeted killings. In some general sense, the terrorists may be trying to kill them, but they are not immediately at risk. They can plan their attack at their leisure, and they can call it off if they discover, say, that their target is holding his daughter on his lap or has moved into a crowd or is sitting with his neighbors in his apartment. They can't avoid imposing some risk on innocent people, but we must insist on a strong commitment to minimize those risks.

The American attack in the Yemeni desert may have met this standard; I don't know who the six people in the vehicle were. Some of Israel's targeted killings have met the standard; some definitely have not.

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