Targeted Killings: Law and Morality in an Asymmetrical World.

Author:Ratner, Steven R.
Position:Book review

Targeted Killings: Law and Morality in an Asymmetrical World. Edited by Claire Finkelstein, Jens David Ohlin, and Andrew Altman. Oxford, New York: Oxford University Press, 2012. Pp. xx, 496. Index. $190, cloth; $70, paper.

Few aspects of contemporary U.S. foreign and military affairs have greater legal, moral, and political stakes than targeted killings--the deployment of military, intelligence, or police forces for the unique purpose of killing a person suspected by a state of engaging in some form of hostile activity against it. Reliable sources have estimated that the United States has engaged in three hundred drone strikes since the beginning of the Obama administration, operated by both the Department of Defense (DoD) and the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), not to mention the most famous such killing--that of Osama bin Laden in 2011 by U.S. Navy SEALs. (1) Although only the United States and Israel publicly admit to engaging in such practices, other states have used various covert means to assassinate not only opponents in a military action but political opposition figures as well. Targeted killings have faced withering criticism as illegal, immoral, and politically counterproductive. Their legality is typically appraised under international human rights and humanitarian law, while their morality raises questions of both just-war theory and legitimate self-defense.

In light of the complexity of the legal and moral issues, Targeted Killings is a welcome addition to the academic literature. It aims to combine in one volume perspectives from legal experts, moral philosophers, and military planners. The decision by the three editors--two legal academics with expertise in criminal law and international law, and one moral philosopher--to gather at a conference and produce a single volume from these multiple disciplines reflects an advance in the gradually developing dialogue between international law and moral philosophy. At the same time, the volume reveals some of the limitations of the current state of that dialogue.

Targeted Killings is a hefty volume, with seventeen chapters organized around five overlapping themes: the combatant or noncombatant status of those targeted for killing (chapters by Mark Maxwell, Jens Ohlin, Daniel Statman, and Jeremy Waldron); the normative context for killings in terms of states of war or peace (chapters by Jeff McMahan, Claire Finkelstein, and Richard Meyer); the role of varying concepts of self-defense (chapters by Craig Martin, Russell Christopher, and Phillip Montague); the particularized judgments required of those engaging in these practices (chapters by Amos Guiora, Gregory McNeal, Kevin Govern, and Kenneth Anderson); and broad philosophical themes of utilitarian versus deontological ethics (chapters by Fernando Teson, Michael Moore, and Leo Katz). The chapters evince a large disparity in their immersion within particularized fields: some focus on moral philosophy (e.g., Statman, McMahan, and Moore), others on pure criminal law theory (e.g., Christopher and Katz), and still others on mostly international law (e.g., Ohlin and Martin).

The philosophical chapters are generally of a high quality, laying out an array of thoughtful perspectives. Waldron's essay weaves both legal and moral philosophy into an effective critique of all targeted killings. As with much of his other work, he seizes upon the dangers of turning a moral principle into a legal permission, in particular the consequences of "incompetent application" (p. 115). Thus, for instance, he warns lawyers against using principles developed in criminal law, where the state has many safeguards for the accused, to other settings lacking them. Moreover, as he points out, when we justify targeted killings, a new norm "is now there in the world to be abused and we have added another resource to the rhetoric that tyrants, terrorists, and aggressors use to 'justify' their murderous behavior" (p. 118). But his critique of philosophical accounts is even broader--that their method of pointing out the flaws in the laws of war is "like shooting fish in a barrel," insofar as it fails to realize that "an untidy norm is always better than no...

To continue reading