A Philosopher's Blog

Killing Americans

Posted in Ethics, Politics by Michael LaBossiere on February 17, 2010
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From both an ethical and a legal standpoint, the United States government can only kill Americans in a rather limited set of circumstances. These, obviously enough, typically involve criminal activity on the part of a citizen that justifies such a killing.

Interestingly, the government also has the legal right to assassinate American citizens who are involved in terrorism, provided that the proper procedures are followed. Not surprisingly, this might strike some as rather disturbing and perhaps unethical. After all, the good guys are not supposed to assassinate people and certainly not fellow Americans. However, there seems to be a moral basis for Americans killing American terrorists.

One case is rather obvious: when an American citizen is willingly part of a terrorist group and is killed in the course of operations against that group. For example, if an American joins a group of terrorists attacking a Marine unit in Afghanistan and he is killed by the soldiers, then that would seem to be morally acceptable under the usual moral rules governing war. After all, when a citizen willingly joins enemy forces as a combatant, then he falls under those moral conditions.

Of course, it becomes more controversial when an American is specifically targeted for assassination. After all,  as assassination is not the same sort of thing as killing in the course of a military engagement. In some cases, assassination could be seen as not being an actual assassination, but as a legitimate part of law enforcement. For example, when a police sniper takes out someone who is trying to kill a hostage, that is not assassination. So, if an American citizen was involved in an act of terror and had to be killed to protect others, that would be morally on par with the legitimate use of force on the part of the police.

Where it becomes very controversial is when it is a true assassination. That is, intentionally seeking out a specific person and killing him so as to kill him, rather than as part of dealing with a specific situation (such as a hostage situation) that requires force. Or, to be blunt about it, committing murder to achieve political goals. For example, targeting an American at a terrorist training camp with a missile strike.

It is tempting to justify such assassinations on the grounds that by killing the American terrorist the assassin is protecting America-just as the police officer who kills a hostage taker before he can kill his hostage. However, there is an important distinction: if the police went around killing criminals while they were merely planning or preparing for crimes, that would be both illegal and immoral. Likewise, assassinating an American terrorist in similar circumstances would also seem to be wrong. After all, he is still a citizen and thus still entitled to the due process of the law. Interestingly, it seems that arguments that could be given for assassinating American terrorists (or other political enemies) in such circumstances would also justify the proactive assassination of dangerous criminals. However, some folks might see this just fine-after all, they might say, real Americans cannot be bothered with all that legal stuff like due process and trials.

However, a citizen who becomes a terrorist or a vicious criminal  is still a citizen and hence assassination would not be a morally acceptable option. If we take the notion that people have a right to life seriously, that means that assassination would be quite out.  That said, it might still be ethical to kill such a person, but that would require the proper circumstances and due process (which, in some cases, might be a shot to the face during a firefight).

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13 Responses

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  1. jonolan said, on February 17, 2010 at 7:41 am

    No, in the circumstances you describe, the individual is no longer American and no longer deserving of consideration. It, like all the jihadis would have to exterminated for the sake of the public health.

    It’s not a matter of law or war; it’s a matter of disease control.

  2. T. J. Babson said, on February 17, 2010 at 8:23 am

    Mike, if someone hires a hitman to kill you, are you not justified in killing him first? Isn’t this situation somewhat similar to the one you are describing?

  3. magus71 said, on February 17, 2010 at 10:16 am

    Man oh man. I don’t know where you’re headed in your old age, Mike.

    When a dude picks up a rifle, disowns his country, and joins the ranks of a foreign enemy, he is now a foreign combatant. Just because he happens to be smoking a cigarette or taking a piss when he’s targeted doesn’t give him special priviledges on the battlefield. He’s taking a piss with his AK-47 or RPG propped against his leg. Actually, he’s now entitled to something foreign combatants are not: The death penalty as a traitor.

    You’ve become an uber-moralist. You’ve seriously blurred the lines between domestic law enforement and fighting a war. I want you to tell a bunch of Marines that know a group of 50 Taliban are holed up in a basement that they can’t call in an airstrike on the place because there’s 1 American fighter in there. There are many, many things that will not violate the rules of war that a soldier can do that would get a police officer thrown in prison.

    And here’s the funny thing: It seems like somehow America is portrayed as fighting less morally than it used to. Bullcrap. We ignored Sun Zsu when we told the Taliban that we would attack them recently in Dahaneh.


    I’m all for moral war. I’m also for winning wars quickly, because now matter how well you’re doing, wars that last a long time irritate lots of people. It’s like tearing a band-aid off quickly if you fight hard and fast.

    All the hemming and hawing we’ve done since 2001 made a raid last 9 years. Astonishing that history’s greatest counter-insurgency force should be made to look like fools by indecisive politicians.

    As Ralph Peters once stated: We became Hamlet when we needed to be Henry V.

  4. P.E.N.Name said, on February 17, 2010 at 10:17 am

    Haven’t we just executed the entire war in Iraq based on a similar principal? Preemptive strike? The problem there and with individual assassinations is intelligence.Is it ironclad? Can it be verified or is it being cooked?Or doesn’t that matter? An (un)related issue. What if you have irrefutable intelligence that a fringe political group working within the US is planning a series of bombings. Why not just kill them where they’re festering? Instead of wasting taxpayers’ money?

  5. jonolan said, on February 17, 2010 at 11:34 am


    If we had irrefutable evidence that they were planning a series of bombings, then it would be right and proper to use whatever means were the most effective to prevent them from doing so. If some number of them could be capture for trial, great! But not at the expense of giving any of them even a slim chance to escape.

    When any criminals move out of the normal sphere of criminal activities and into the sphere of quasi-military activities they should be considered to have moved outside of the protections provided by laws. At that point they’re an illegal combatant / terrorist / traitor (if of the US) and should be dispatched with greatest of efficiency and surety.

    Of course the flip side of that is that those who decided that these people now warranted such treatment must be held utterly and finally accountable for their decision on the matter. In this case, much like USMJ, making a mistake is a criminal offense.

    • P.E.N.Name said, on February 17, 2010 at 2:12 pm

      From a practical standpoint I can’t disagree with much in the first two paragraphs. Key words and phrases here are ‘irrefutable’ ‘right and proper’, ‘effective’, ‘normal sphere of criminal activities’, ‘efficiency and surety’. Each involves judgment. To ascertain when that level has been achieved. It’s easy to see how much judgment is involved in words like ‘proper’, effective’ ‘normal’, etc. But even ‘irrefutable’ evidenceisn’t easy to pin down. At what point can you be ‘absolutely certain’ that there’s no more evidence out there to refute the evidence you’ve obtained? DNA is an example. In the 70’s there’s irrefutable evidence to execute a man. You fry him. In 2009 DNA evidence proves he was innocent. Tough for him. And his loved ones. And the little unborn swimmers that he could have produced had he not been snuffed. Basically the standards of ‘irrefutability’ if you will should be pretty darn stiff before you take out a compound of left-wing, right-wing or special interest group members on American soil. I would only add to that the problem I would have with the last paragraph. I would prefer having the US Criminal Courts handle the accountability issue. Of those who initiate, direct and carry out the effective elimination of the target(s). I don’t feel easy with the rooster being the final judge of what happens in his hen house. The responsibilty you refer to should reach as far up the chain of command as it legally should.Even to include generals. I seems to me that sometimes in the military courts the ‘utter and final responsibility’ that would make the process you describe in your first two paragraphs really work sometimes falls short. Would it really reach the the people responsible for evaluating the irrefutable evidence and giving the final kill order? Or do generals delegate everything?

  6. magus71 said, on February 17, 2010 at 11:52 am

    And Mike, you’re also, it seems, arguing that because these people are Americans they are entitled to special rights. How does this mesh with your argument that people like KSM should be given non-military trials?

    In the case you argue, were I a recruiter for al-Qaeda, I’d try even harder to get Americans to fight for my organization, seeing that we can’t target them unless they’re in the actual act of pointing a gun at a US serviceman. It would also defeat half the power of drone warfare; it keeps terrorists scared all the time as there’s few safe places remaining.

    Seems you want your cake and eat it too. Or you want terrorists–whatever their citizenship–to have their killing sprees and their day in civilian court, too.

    • Michael LaBossiere said, on February 17, 2010 at 2:50 pm

      No, it is not that they are entitled to special rights. They are entitled to the normal rights that citizens possess. Among these rights is the right to not be killed by your own government without due process or due cause.

      If an American joins a terrorist group, then he can be legitimately killed in military operations. Using the example in my post, if he attacks US forces or is present during a legitimate military strike then he can be justly killed. However, seeking him out in particular to assassinate him would be a different matter-unless, of course, you want to accept a general principle that allows assassination of citizens who pose a threat (such as criminals or CEOs who helped devastate the economy).

      I do not want terrorists to kill people. However, we pride ourselves on our moral superiority and this requires that we act the part we claim. If we simply assassinate and kill without due process, then we are not acting justly. And, as Bush said, this is a moral struggle. Such battles are won on the moral high ground and not by resorting to the “any means necessary” approach.

      • jonolan said, on February 17, 2010 at 3:53 pm

        I assume then that you have a similar problem with attacking any rear echelon unit then? They too, after all are not currently engaged in battle.

        Face it, the hypothetical vermin in question is in an enemy compound working with the enemy. He is therefor the enemy and the best place to exterminate an enemy is anywhere but the battlefield.

        • Michael LaBossiere said, on February 19, 2010 at 10:14 am

          I do have some moral qualms about engaging non-combat units, but that could be a mere psychological bias on my part. From a purely tactical and strategic standpoint, I recognize the value of attacking support units and even civilian targets that are involved in producing war material. However, my preference to avoid the necessity of such actions by solving problems without violence whenever possible.

          While an American who joins with terrorists of this sort could very reasonably be considered a traitor (and hence in need of execution) such a person is still a citizen. As such, he is entitled to due process. After all, even the most heinous criminal is entitled to a trial. We need to be consistent in our justice or it is not really justice.

          • jonolan said, on February 19, 2010 at 5:08 pm

            Whether or not the ex-American is a traitor under the law or not is immaterial actually. He’s an enemy and should be eliminated like any other enemy – by whatever means give the best chance of success and the least risk to friendly forces. Laws and Courts have nothing to do with it.

            Would you arrest, Mirandize, and try the Taliban and/or Al-Qaeda in Asia Minor?

            • Michael LaBossiere said, on February 19, 2010 at 7:12 pm

              If the traitor is engaged in combat, then he gets treated as an enemy combatant-that is, he can be killed legitimately during the course of a battle or a military operation. However, assassination is different from battle or military operations.

              I am not claiming that the rights of citizens extend to non-citizens in all contexts. I am just claiming that citizens retain the legal rights until they are removed by due process.

            • jonolan said, on February 20, 2010 at 8:08 am

              It’s possible that we’re not really communicating meaningfully, Michael. You various statements and examples don’t seem to fit together to me.

              Specifically you used dropping a missile on a terrorist training camp as unethical if an American was there, but you then say, “If the traitor is engaged in combat, then he gets treated as an enemy combatant-that is, he can be killed legitimately during the course of a battle or a military operation.”

              Which is it?

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