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Assassination: Moral, Legal, Political and Practical Views Research Paper

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Updated: Jun 27th, 2020


The assassination debate has for a long time being subjected to public deliberations, especially in elucidating its legality as a tool of statecraft. Despite the various viewpoints arising from the debate, it is evidently clear that assassination has, and continues to be used by governments to eliminate public figures and dissidents perceived to sponsor or engage in horrendous and subversive actions (Asa & Amosy, 2005). Assassination cuts across societies, and is one of the oldest tools used by regimes in power politics.

Indeed, the history of targeted killing dates back at least as far as recorded history, and evidence demonstrates that it was used against popular public figures, including Julius Caesar, J.F. Kennedy and Martin Luther King, among others (Vernon, 2004; Belfield, 2005). The upsurge of terrorism in the 21st century have served to invigorate the assassination debate, especially after the admittance by U.S. president George W. Bush that some perceived enemies of the American people were too evil to live following the 9/11 terrorist attack (Kaufman, n.d.). It is the purpose of this paper to support a policy that employs assassination as a tool of U.S. statecraft.

This paper intends to support the policy of assassination by evaluating the moral, legal, political and practical dimensions of assassination. Specifically, the moral dimensions will espouse various perspectives, including the immunity theory, self-defense theory, consequentialist theories, and deontological theories to support the use of assassination. On the legal front, the Executive Order 12,333 in addition to specific aspects of International Law, Geneva Conventions, U.N. Charter, and Declaration of Independence will be used to support the thesis statement.

These aspects include the use of lethal force, specific targeting of individuals and the pursuit of happiness. The immunity theory and consequentialist approach will be revisited to espouse the political dimensions of assassination. Also, the punishment argument and the ‘proportionality doctrine of International Law’ will be discussed to demonstrate why public figures and political leaders who pose a serious threat to U.S. national security should be targeted for killing. Lastly, the paper will focus on the practical dimensions of assassination, which will include eradication of skilled terrorists, disruption of enemy’s infrastructure and command structure, and demoralization.

Scholars have offered different definitions of assassination to fit diverse contexts. At the most basic level, however, assassination can be defined as the targeted killing or elimination of a public figure, usually for ideological, political, public personal recognition, or religious reasons (Carlisle, 2007). This paper will evaluate assassination within the context of government-sponsored killing of public figures, opponents, and highly ranked enemy combatants.

According to Soderblom (2004) and Belfield (2005), assertions of the U.S. participation in assassination conspiracies against officials or militants in Iraq, Cuba, the Dominican Republic, Somalia, Democratic Republic of Congo, Chile, Vietnam, and Afghanistan are vivid examples quoted regularly to make obvious the fact that the employment of political assassination is still in fashion.

Indeed, the administration of President Bush is on record for announcing that it had carried out successful assassinations on enemy targets in foreign countries (Kaufman, n.d.), an assertion that was not well received by anti-assassination lobbyists who claimed that the government was acting in direct contravention of Executive Order 12,333, which states that “…no person employed by or acting on behalf of the United States government shall engage in, or conspire to engage in, assassination” (Kershner, 2004, p. 44). Although the directive remains effective to date, the discussion below reveals compelling evidence as to why a policy of using assassination should be adopted as a tool of U.S. statecraft.

The Moral Dimensions of Assassination

Anti-assassination lobbyists have for a very long time argued that it is morally wrong to plan or arrange a scenario whereby the life of another person is willfully terminated for whatever reasons. The more liberal anti-assassination lobbyists have taken a stand that whereas it may seem proper to kill or disable an enemy combatant, the methods employed end up terminating the lives of innocent non-combatants. While the second argument is largely based on immunity theory on combatants and non-combatants (Kershner, 2004), the dynamics of the 21st century warfare has greatly blurred the proper distinction between the two.

For instance, we have heard cases of sitting civilian presidents who allow terrorist organizations to operate from their territories to cause deaths to citizens of another regime as was the case with the Taliban terrorist organization in Afghanistan. In such a case, the sitting civilian presidents can be summed up as combatants since “…they are both causal and logical agents of an unjust [terrorist] campaign” (Kershner, 2004, p. 45). Killing or disabling them is therefore morally right according to the immunity approach.

Based on the self-defense theory, a sitting government has exclusive moral right and duty to defend its own citizens against internal or external threats. In equal measure, dissidents and other public figures that pose threats to the welfare of others first and foremost forfeit the moral rights that offer them protection against adverse actions (Kershner, 2004).

For example, in spite of the fact that terrorist organizations have no moral right to kill innocent citizens as it happened in the 9/11 bombings on the World Trade Center, they are less interested in constraining the casualties of war (Caulemans, 2009). Indeed, a terrorist organization’s main goal is to cause fatalities to as many citizens as possible. As such, government agents involved in the planning, tracking and killing such dissidents have a moral right to do so under the self-defense theory.

The consequentialist theories of morality generally holds the view that moral agents should choose the actions that occasions the best consequence or outcome and, as such, consequences or outcomes of actions must be the only valid basis for any judgment that may be passed about such actions (Asa & Amosy, 2005). In equal measure, various deontological theories of morality such as utilitarianism hold the view that individuals should engage in actions that brings the highest possible good to many people. As such, it can be argued that a policy of using assassination to target people bent on causing harm to the greater good (peace of citizens) is tenable. What’s more, such a policy “…would likely bring about the best consequences since it would help to prevent genocide, unjust military aggression, and other horrendous state actions” (Kershner, 2004, p. 45-46).

The above discussion aptly demonstrates that assassination targeting individuals whose only desire is to cause harm to innocent people as is the case with terrorists is morally right. However, the U.S. needs to employ a ‘moral-based combatant/non-combatant approach’ that would allow it to operate discriminately within countries that abet, aid, or support heinous subversive activities and eliminate individuals who target its citizens, “…not for what they have done, or for what they are doing, but simply because they happen to be citizens of that particular [country]” (Caulemans, 2009, p. 106). Such dissidents cannot find shelter in any moral law

Anti-assassination groups largely rely on human rights law and some aspects of international law to argue their case that assassination has no legal basis (Soderblom, 2004). While this may be so, there exist numerous aspects within the laws that give assassination a legal backing. It is indeed true that the employment of targeted killing as a foreign policy tool directly contravenes the very logic of endorsing the Executive Order 12,333, already described in this paper. However, times have changed since the enactment of the order by President Ford in 1976, and it is only plausible to come up with other ways of ensuring that individuals bent on killing American citizens using modern-day asymmetric attack tactics such as terrorism or guerrilla warfare do not have their way.

Even though the U.N. charter still maintains a general ban on the employment of force, perceptions “… of proportionality and mitigating civilian casualties now influence the legality of assassination” (Soderblom, 2004). For instance, it is prudent to argue that a military-led assassination on Osama bin Laden could have prevented masses of civilian casualties that still continue to date, in addition to saving a lot of financial resources.

The author argues that the employment of ‘lethal force’ against an individual or country perceived as posing a threat to the interests of another country is documented as legal in international law. Likewise, the specific targeting of an individual or groups of individuals is not prohibited in the U.N. Charter or in any other noteworthy decree governing symmetrical warfare such as the Geneva Conventions or the Hague Conventions. As such, it is only prudent to argue that assassination is not outlawed, but it must be employed within the right context of the current laws.

International law, for instance, allows the employment of lethal force against a target for purposes of enforcing the law as well as in self-defense (Soderblom, 2004). Terrorists and other subversive groups are bent on creating disturbances, fear, and breakdown of the social order, and will go to greater heights to kill or maim innocent people if they are allowed the chance. Such dissidents, according to Asa & Amosy (2005), not only break the law but their actions directly contravene the Declaration of Independence which guarantees people certain unalienable rights, including the pursuit of happiness. As such, the U.S. is by all means merited by international law to use lethal force on these individuals for purposes of enforcing the law.

In equal measure, Article 51 of the U.N. charter legitimizes the use of lethal force for purposes of self-defense (Soderblom, 2004). This is precisely what the U.S. relied on in attacking and assassinating Taliban militants after the 2001 terrorist attack. It is imperative to note that the military operation was sanctioned by the U.N., thereby giving credibility to the fact that there exist situations in which plotting and carrying out assassinations seems to be the only option, legally, especially when certain people of influence aspire to become common enemies of mankind either through symmetrical or asymmetrical warfare (Soderblom, 2004).

Political Dimensions of Assassination

As already mentioned, assassination is one of the oldest tools employed by regimes in power politics. The political dimensions of assassination can be discussed using several platforms. Under the immunity theory, political leaders who have no part to play in symmetrical or asymmetrical warfare should never be targeted for assassination. However, it is a well known fact that most political leaders have critical roles to play in armed conflict involving one country against the other, and most have overriding control over the military (Kaufman, n.d.).

For instance, it is beyond reasonable doubt that Saddam Hussein and Muammar Gaddafi ordered the killing of hundreds of critics, and that both leaders have in one way or the other sponsored terrorist activities, including playing host to numerous terrorist networks (Carlisle, 2007). Such political leaders can be presumed as active combatants, and therefore can be targeted for assassination just as the soldiers or terrorists who have an active role to play in either symmetrical or asymmetrical warfare.

The punishment approach argues along the basic premise that there is every reason to punish political leaders for initiating the acts that occasioned the war or brought about terrorist activities (Kaufman, n.d.). For instance, the Taliban political leader played host to the Al-Qaeda group, which later masterminded the 9/11 terrorist attacks against the U.S.

As such, the U.S. has every right to punish the political leader, not because he actively participated in the planning and execution of the bombings, but because his acts of giving homage to the terrorist network offered the attackers fertile ground to attack American citizens, who must be protected under all costs as envisaged in the Constitution of the land (Carlisle, 2007). As such, it was justifiable for the U.S. to launch military attacks with the aim of not only eliminating Osama bin Laden and his followers, but also the political leaders of Taliban. However, the perceived relationship linking a political leader to a specific subversive or terror group must be objectively proved for this approach to gain credence (Kaufman, n.d.).

The consequentialist rationale for assassination insists that political leaders may become easy targets for assassination if killing them would not only help to save civilian casualties and financial resources, but would also uphold all the laws relating to armed conflict (Kaufman, n.d.). For example, if it was proven beyond any reasonable doubt that Iran President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was enriching uranium for purposes of starting a nuclear warfare with Israel or any other nation, then it would appear more plausible to target him for elimination as an individual than permit his odious ambitions to ruin the lives of generations across the world. Again, the purpose or intent of such an action must be objectively proved, and the U.S. must never rely on hearsay to undertake such an operation.

According to Kaufman (n.d.), “…the proportionality doctrine of international law supports a conclusion that it is wrong to allow the slaughter of 10,000 relatively innocent soldiers and civilians if the underlying aggression can be brought to an end by the elimination of one guilty offender” (para 6). This assertion further demonstrates the fact that a political leader who is largely viewed as an unjust, imminent aggressor can be targeted for elimination instead of being left to put thousands of innocent lives in jeopardy. The Roman King Julius Caesar was targeted for elimination using this approach, and his killing brought a lot of prosperity to the ancient Romanians (Soderblom, 2004).

Practical Dimensions of Assassinations

There exist numerous practical reasons why targeted killings can be used to weaken the activities of individuals or groups largely perceived as posing a direct threat to the national security of the U.S. First, assassinations serve to eradicate skilled terrorists who are charged with the responsibility of making bombs that end up being used against innocent American citizens (McMahan, 2009). Terrorists are always drawn back when their bomb makers and recruiters are killed since it takes time to develop expertise.

Second, assassinations are known to disrupt the enemy’s infrastructure, command structure, and organization, and occasions immense anxiety and stress on other individuals or terrorists who must frequently move, change locations, and hide, thus completely decapitating their organizational might and flow of information. Assassinations on enemy targets such as terrorists also functions as a demoralizing agent since targeted individuals cannot freely move around to visit their families or friends without severe risk (McMahan, 2009).


The above discussion clearly demonstrates why a policy on using assassination as a tool of U.S. statecraft should be supported. The modern symmetrical and asymmetrical warfare is intrinsically different from traditional warfare as witnessed by the sophisticated technologies which terrorists and other operatives are using to hit enemy lines. As such, it is only imperative for the U.S. government to re-strategize and come up with legal frameworks that support the policy of targeted killing on individuals that work round the clock to destabilize the peace of this great nation.

A good starting point would be to amend the Executive Order 12,333 to allow U.S. intelligence community to undertake assassinations on figures that are known to be a threat to its national security (Asa & Amosy, 2005). Individuals such as Osama bin Laden must forever remain targeted for killing if the country is to maintain its stability. Others like the Iran president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad must know that there will be consequences for their actions. Letting such people off the hook will only serve to destabilize world peace.

Reference List

Asa, K., & Amosy, Y. (2005). Assassination and Preventive Killing. The SAIS Review of International Affairs, 25(1), 41-47.

Belfield, R. (2005). The assassination business: A history of state-sponsored murder. New York, NY: Carroll & Graf Publishers.

Carlisle, R.P. (2007). One day in history: September 11, 2001. New York, NY: Harper.

Caulemans, C. (2009). Asymmetric warfare and morality: From moral asymmetry to amoral symmetry. In: T. Baarda & D.E.M. Verweij, The moral dimension of asymmetrical warfare: Counter-terrorism, democratic values and military values. Leiden: Koninklijke Brill.

Kaufman, W. (n.d.). Web.

Kershner, S. (2004). Web.

McMahan, J. (2009). Killing in War. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Soderblom, J.D. (2004). Time to Kill? State sponsored assassinations and International Law. Web.

Vernon, J. (2004). Ides of March Marked Murder of Julius Caesar. Web.

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