This article is a modified and expanded text of a contribution to a Jadaliyya roundtable on targeted killing posted on March 5, 2012, and responding to the article by Lisa Hajjar referred to in the opening paragraph.

A Predator drone fires a Hellfire missile (Photo: NATO)

A Predator drone fires a Hellfire missile (Photo: NATO)

There is an emergent Israeli/American controversy on the lawfulness of targeted killing. Although the policy has not yet attained the status of being a national debate, there are signs that it may be about to happen, especially in light of Attorney General Eric Holder’s Northwestern Law School speech on March 5, 2012 outlining the Obama’s administration’s controversial approach to targeted killing in some detail. Lisa Hajjar convincingly narrates how the “legalization” of targeted killing has evolved over the course of the last twenty years. [Hajjar, “Lawfare and Targeted Killing: Developments in the Israeli and U.S. Contexts,” Jadaliyya, Jan. 15, 2012] She there calls attention to the analogy to the torture debate that, in many ways, defined the political and moral identity of the Bush presidency in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks, and even caused moral and legal fissures to develop that divided the American people unto this day.

Hajjar shows that it was Israel that first crossed the threshold of legality in response to a wave of suicide bombings that traumatized Israeli society in the 1990s. In other words, targeted killing became a tactic of choice for both the Israel and the United States as part of the preventive logic of counter-terrorism; that is, placing a premium on eliminating threats before harm is inflicted rather than the reactive logic of striking back and retaliating. The upsurge in targeted killing seems responsive to the belief that neither defensive strategies, nor deterrence, nor massive retaliation are appropriate or effective against a terrorist adversary, especially if the violence might accompanied by the readiness of a perpetrator to die while carrying out a mission.

By so doing, it gives up on the struggle to restrict the discretion of states to claim self-defense as an open-ended justification for the use of force. This is a major setback for war prevention efforts resting on international law that can be traced back at least to the Kellogg-Briand Pact of 1928 that outlawed recourse to war and was later reinforced and elaborated at the Nuremberg trials and in the core provisions, Articles 2(4) and 51, of the UN Charter. In other words, from an international law perspective, the stakes are higher than they might seem in the context of authorizing target killing by invoking the alleged security necessities of the ‘war’ occasioned by the 9/11 attacks. Holder framed his defense of the tactics, including targeted killing, relied upon by the Obama presidency in the terms initially laid down by George W. Bush in his September 20, 2001 speech to a joint session of Congress: “We are a nation at war.” How different might the last decade have been, and likely for the better, if Bush had opted back then in that feverish atmosphere for a policy of enhanced law enforcement, not a global war on terror. And one can only wonder and question the failure of Obama to take advantage of the changed climate in 2009 when he moved into the White House, or after the execution of Osama Bin Laden, to indicate that the war was at an end, and from now on the guidelines of law enforcement would prevail. Earlier terrorist organizations operating in Europe poses much greater threats to the security of societies than is posed by the remnants of Al Qaeda, and never insisted on the governmental prerogatives of warmaking.

In considering the victims of targeted killing, we are dealing with one aspect of the plight of rightless Palestinians and alleged American enemies scattered around the world, with an inevitable skepticism about the degree to which this unaccountable authority to kill individuals is exercised in a responsible manner as claimed by its apologists, most recently by Eric Holder. Looking at the Israeli record with respect to Palestinian prisons or the American treatment of its detainees at Abu Ghraib or Gunatánamo Bay, there is every reason to doubt whether the claims of great care exercised in the approval of targets are to be trusted at all. Certainly, those selected for torture were often persons without information and sometimes without any real involvement with terrorist activities. In important respects, targeted killing is worse than torture due both to its finality, which deprives the target of any opportunity to tell his or her story, and because of the collateral damage inflicted on those unlucky innocents who happen to be in the killing zone—or are mistakenly targeted.


Hajjar draws an instructive distinction between those who regard reliance on law and courts as a positive dimension of political democracy and those who view recourse to law as a means to delegitimize states and their security policies. I would develop this distinction by viewing civil society’s recourse to litigation and legal arguments as “constructive lawfare,” while viewing the denigration of law’s role by governments— specifically, Israel and the US—as nihilistic or regressive, and an effort to free themselves from all forms of legal accountability that they cannot fully control. Such efforts to deplore recourse to law and international standards of legitimacy aim to insulate state security policy from procedures and discipline of accountability, and deprive society of an absolutely necessary check on the abuse of state power undertaken in secrecy and insulated from even post-facto investigation. Constructive lawfare is one of the few means available in a democratic society to redress the new imbalance between state and society in the post-9/11 world, and in relation to the acute vulnerability experienced daily by a people living under occupation for decades.

Instead of seeking to invalidate ‘lawfare,’ governments that took seriously their own insistence on the importance of living according to cherished values would move to allow citizens to have greater access to courts to raise questions of international and constitutional law flowing from governmental security policies.

More specifically, it would be a meaningful gesture in this direction if the U.S. Government were to foreswear procedural copouts from accountability by renouncing the political questions doctrine, executive privilege, and sovereign immunity. Holder quotes Obama several times to the effect that adhering to the rule of law is the right thing to do, but also because it is more effective in upholding security interests. As Obama expressed it at the National Archives in 2009: “[w]e uphold our most cherished values not only because doing so is right, but because it strengthens our country and it keeps it safe. Time and again, our values have been our best national security asset.” If that were genuinely believed, then a different approach would have been long ago adopted both in relation to targeted killing, and more generally, to security: less secrecy, more accountability, and more readiness to recognize and address the legitimate grievances of foreign adversaries.


David Cole makes the following cogent observation on his New York Review of Books blog (19 September 2011): “In international law, where reciprocity governs, what is lawful for the goose is lawful for the gander.” He goes further in questioning the approach taken to targeted killing by the Obama administration as being unmindful of setting a precedent that is a prelude to future regret: if we “continue to justify such practices in only the vaguest of terms, we should expect other countries to take them up—and almost certainly in ways we will not find to our liking.” In effect, he is adopting the view that Obama embraces, which is the convenient convergence of virtue and practical benefit.

It is true that international law in many substantive domains, from diplomatic exchange to commerce, substitutes reciprocity for enforcement, and so what is claimed for oneself is granted to others. However, in the domains of national security, the use of armed force, and criminal accountability for gross crime, international law operates more characteristically according to an imperial logic, or at best a hegemonic logic, in which equals are not treated equally. It is obvious that losers in wars with the West and leaders of some Global South countries are being held more and more accountable for crimes against humanity, especially since the establishment of the International Criminal Court a decade ago. But it is equally obvious that leaders of Western countries, including Israel, enjoy de facto impunity despite their evident involvement in crimes against humanity.

The one exception, which irritates geopolitical actors clinging to impunity, is the haphazard efforts to detain and prosecute state officials and agents under the controversial rubric of universal jurisdiction. Hajjar’s article gives a helpful summary of the pull and push pressures associated with attempts to rely on universal jurisdiction in relation to Israeli military and political leaders whose travel carries them to countries in Western Europe that have laws on their books permitting the use of domestic courts to pursue accountability for crimes of state committed beyond normal territorial sovereignty.  What is most notable is that these attempts to extend the reach of international criminal law beyond what is possible at a global level are furiously resisted by the United States and Israel, claiming the potential disruption of diplomatic interaction. True, the imposition of law can be disruptive, but the refusal to apply law is also disruptive in a different way by discrediting fundamental claims about animating values.