The Death of Bin Laden and the Morality of Targeted Killings

There is not much I can say about the death of Bin Laden that will not be better said by others with greater eloquence or expertise, including the President in his speech last night, which I thought hit all the right notes. Obviously, it is a great day for the US and all who are threatened by radical Islamist terror. We should also commend the president, the special forces who carried out the mission, and the intelligence community. Hopefully, this success is a sign of improvement in US intelligence capabilities over the last decade.

From an international law perspective, it’s worth noting that the operation against Bin Laden is an example of targeted killing. Although we don’t yet know very many details, it’s pretty obvious that the US targeted Bin Laden deliberately, something the President more or less admitted in his speech, where he said that we have been tracking Bin Laden for many months (presumably for the purpose of targeting him as an individual). In the past, such targeted killings have drawn criticism from human rights organizations and others who claim that they violate international law. Co-Conspirator Kenneth Anderson described the debate in this excellent article. It’s unlikely that there will be much criticism of the operation against Bin Laden. However, the broader debate over the law and morality of targeted killings is likely to continue. I gave my own thoughts back in 2006, at the time of targeted killing of Abu Musab Al-Zarqawi. I think the central point holds true today:

In my view, targeting terrorist leaders is not only defensible, but actually more ethical than going after rank and file terrorists or trying to combat terrorism through purely defensive security measures. The rank and file have far less culpability for terrorist attacks than do their leaders, and killing them is less likely to impair terrorist operations. Purely defensive measures, meanwhile, often impose substantial costs on innocent people and may imperil civil liberties. Despite the possibility of collateral damage inflicted on civilians whom the terrorist leaders use as human shields, targeted assassination of terrorist leaders is less likely to harm innocents than most other strategies for combatting terror and more likely to disrupt future terrorist operations.

That does not prove that it should be the only strategy we use, but it does mean that we should reject condemnations of it as somehow immoral.

UPDATE: This Reuters report confirms that the special forces were instructed to kill Bin Laden rather than capture him (HT: Instapundit).

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