‘Who shall we kill this week, Mr President?’

Targeted: The USA is offering a reward of up to US$25m for information about al-Zawahiri.

Almost every major country orders its enemies to be assassinated without trial. Many of those killed are dangerous terrorists, but can these extrajudicial killings really be justified?

They call it “Terror Tuesday”.

Every week in the White House, the US president personally approves people for death without any legal process at all.

Sound like some new, dystopian policy dreamed up by Donald Trump? Wrong. In fact it was first introduced by Barack Obama in 2010 —yes, the former lawyer who supported the closure of Guantanamo Bay.

According to Clive Stafford Smith in The Times Literary Supplement (TLS): “It is the unthinking abnegation of various long-settled human rights rules – among them, the right to a fair trial – by politicians who seem immune to the lessons of history.”

But this is is not unique to the USA. There are 783 names on Syrian president Bashar al-Assad’s hit list, while former French President François Hollande admits he authorised four assassinations. Even NATO has the “Joint Prioritised Effects List” of terrorists.

The most famous assassination of recent times was the killing of Osama bin Laden in Pakistan in 2011. In the days after the al-Qaeda leader’s death, a debate raged over whether he should have been captured and brought to trial instead.

Before the War on Terror there was only one clear example of a US military assassination project: the top secret “Phoenix” project to kill the Viet Cong leaders during the Vietnam War.

But the CIA’s dabbling in assassinations caused so many problems that, in 1975, a report declared assassination “incompatible with American principle, international order and morality”.

An executive order signed by Gerald Ford in 1976 officially banned political assassinations.

Killing your enemies is one of the world’s oldest, simplest ideas. The word “assassination” itself was born around 1090. Suicide killers steeled themselves with hashish – “hashashin” in Arabic – before their missions.

It only really became frowned on in the 17th century, when the Italian lawyer Alberico Gentili classified assassination as nothing more than murder. But it appears to be making a comeback. Was Gentili right?

Kill or be killed

Yes he was, say some. Governments are happy to dispose of their enemies when the killing takes place far away and out of sight. But it is fundamentally unlawful, as any “kill-only” policy is not allowed under international law. Assassinations also frequently result in violent backlashes. Much better to capture villains and bring them to justice.

But that is easier said than done, reply others. This is war — and in war, the ethics of killing people are completely different. People like bin Laden and Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi pose an enormous threat, both real and symbolic, to the civilised world. People should stop being so squeamish about this. Assassinations can be morally justified.

You Decide

  1. Can assassinations be morally justified?
  2. Would you be prepared to carry out an assassination on behalf of your government and military?


  1. Divide into pairs. One person plays a military commander urging an assassination, while the other plays a leader who has ethical objections to carrying it out.
  2. Research one historical assassination and write 500 words on both its morality and the events resulting from it.

Some People Say...

“Kill one terrorist and 100 will take his place.”

What do you think?

Q & A

What do we know?
We know that, every week, the White House observes “Terror Tuesday”, when the US President personally approves people for death without any legal process at all. Since the start of the War on Terror, more and more countries have kill lists, and targeted strikes have become more common. Assassinations have been around for centuries, but were viewed as morally wrong for most of the 20th century.
What do we not know?
Many of the details of political assassinations are kept very secret. And there are quite a few killings that may have been ordered by governments but have not been confirmed as such. For example, the poisoning of former KGB agent Alexander Litvinenko in London is widely believed to have been carried out on the orders of the Kremlin.

Word Watch

Guantanamo Bay
A US military prison located on the island of Cuba. After a string of human rights abuses at the camp, Barack Obama promised that he would close it, but met strong opposition, with Congress passing laws to prohibit detainees from Guantanamo being imprisoned in the United States. The number of inmates has been radically reduced, but it remains open.
783 names
The list contained 82 Westerners, including 26 British nationals and eight Americans.
Killing of Osama bin Laden
Bin Laden had lived in hiding for a decade after he became the world’s most wanted man after 9/11. After years of searching, he was eventually found in Abbottabad, Pakistan, where he was killed by a group of US Navy SEALs. Following his death, thousands of people took to the streets of American cities to celebrate.
Viet Cong
Short for “Vietnamese Communist”, the Viet Cong were actually called the National Front for the Liberation of South Vietnam. They were a guerrilla army which, aided by the North Vietnamese, fought against their own government and the United States during the Vietnam War (1955–1975).

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