This demands that states treat terrorists just as they would any heinous criminal, whether an ordinary lawbreaker or war criminal. Law enforcement entails arrest, trial and sentencing, and only permits law enforcement officers to use lethal force when either their lives or the lives of bystanders are in immediate danger" (Gross, 2006, p 324).
Michael Gross points out that in time of state declared war, it is difficult to actually pinpoint the elements of war and therefore the state of war is debatable and can often result in arguments rather that a clear cut situation that could eventually justify a preemptive action taken against rebel activists. The state of war justifies against international law different types of activities state driven. However, in time of peace, such actions are not only illegal from the point-of-view of international law but are also considered immoral and non-ethical in relation to the public opinion, the electorate, and the international community.
Gross raises the issue of targeted killing as whether it is justifiable as a tactic of modern warfare (Gross, p 103). However, he points out that an answer takes into account "who do targeted killings target? What is their status? Are they criminals, terrorists, guerillas, or ordinary combatants?" (Gross, p 103).
Targeted killing can be seen as ethical and moral when having in mind a strict combination of factors. On the one hand, targeted killing can only be applied in an ethical manner when there is a clear asymmetrical ratio of forces between the combatants. As stated by Gross, "targeted killings do not take place in an intelligence vacuum. On the contrary, copious amounts of reliable intelligence are necessary to sustain a comprehensive program of targeted killing. While electronic means provide some information, most come from human intelligence sources" (Gross, p112). At the same time though, terrorist activists and individuals engaged in such acts are most of the time embedded civilians, they are usually part of the society and cannot be seen as potential threats until the intelligence community provides its input on the terrorist activities in the respective country. The threat must be seen as imminent and with massive consequences for the integrity and security of the state. Given this, it may appear moral and ethical to ensure that, as a state, the responsibility of protecting and ensuring a safe living environment is fully met and represents the top priority, reason for which targeted killing may be seen as justifiable.
Colonomos discusses the issue of targeted killing in the framework of the just war theory. He considers that "just war theory is an ever evolving concept (…) As long as they are institutionalized in law just war criteria are all the more likely to be used" (Colonomos, p3) There is however a debate on whether the "war on terror" can be labeled as just war, given that the context of the international relations has changed since the introduction of the term. The Israeli practice of targeted killing represents a new means of dealing with terrorist threats coming from the Palestinian side, a practice that is part of dealing with the conflict between the Israeli and the Palestinian. Although targeted killing has often been criticized by the U.S. prior to the 9/11 attacks, after the U.S., justifying preemptive action, has undergone several actions aimed at killing Al Qaeda leaders.
One of the main reasons for which targeted killing is presented as moral is that of reduction of casualties on the battlefield. Colonomos points out that since the war in Vietnam the aim of the belligerent countries was to reduce casualties to the minimum. (Colonomos, )When preparing a single, surgical hit on an important element of a terrorist group or a subversive faction, the casualties in both camps are minimal and can only be taken into account if the precision of the hit is less than perfect. However, in ideal conditions, it can be seen as both moral and ethical to undergo targeted killings because it reaches its aim without the efforts or human costs an air raid would incur.
In terms of the discussion ever the ethical and moral value of targeted killing, there are certain aspects that should be taken into account for further reference. these aspects are related to the specificity of the confrontation with terrorist factions, an they relate to the actual notion of the term ethical and moral.
As stated previously, the asymmetrical confrontation with terrorist groups takes into account the fact that the two sides, the terrorist group and the state or group of states do not share the same information. In typical warfare, the information available was most of the times acquired through the same means and methods that included intelligence agencies, undercover operations, and military tactics. In current state of affairs, this no longer applies especially because the state is dealing with a global threat that acquires its information from different sources around the world that are not accessible to the state related organisms such as local informants, rudimentary yet close-to-ground human sources information. Therefore, the way in which one side ensures the flow of information and the reaction time to such information is crucial and can make the difference between preventing an attack and becoming a victim of that attack. From this point-of-view, the targeted killing may be justified; at the same time though, it has to be underlined for further study that targeted killing is often used as a means of decapitating this flow of information from one faction to another, therefore still as a preemptive measure. This in turn can incur massive abuses from the ones using targeted killings as a strategy. Thus, further study should be conducted on the way in which targeted killings can ensure its purpose but with due limitation for respect for the law and international conduct.
Moreover, the notions of ethical and moral have changed dramatically because the conditions in which these notions were defined no longer exist. If indeed it is moral and ethical to ensure the security of the people of one country, how can the same morality and ethical norm be maintained when that country is at opened war with another? The example of Israel and the Palestine is classical. Morality and ethics depend on the perspective by which they are defined. While Israel considers ethically correct to ensure that the leaders of the Palestinian terrorist factions are killed, the Palestinian people may consider legitimate to ensure that a state of Palestine is created, one that would ensure the security and safety of the Palestinian population. Therefore, further study needs to be conducted to ensure that the perspectives of the two sides in the confrontation are taken into account.
The most dramatic change in warfare since the end of the Second World War and especially after the fall of the Soviet Union is perhaps the presence of asymmetrical threats. After the 9/11 2001 attack against the World Trade Center, the terrorist threat became obvious especially given its unpredictable nature and its massive destructive power. Governments have taken measures at the level of the foreign policy cabinets to reduce the risks associated with potential terrorist attacks on the population. One of these measures is the institutionalization of targeted killing as a means through which preemptive action is taken in order to neutralize any potential terrorist presence inside a country.
Targeted killing implies the identification of potential groups responsible for acts of terrorism. These acts are not necessarily confirmed but based on intelligence they are expected. Given the multitude of sources of intelligence however, there is relativity in terms of securing information related to one action or another and intelligence agencies try to cover as many scenarios as possible in order to ensure protection against any possible danger.
Targeted killing practice is a means of dealing with potential threats in a proactive manner. More precisely, in order to prevent terrorist attacks or massive attacks on the integrity of a state or a population, preemptive action is taken to ensure that possible terrorist actions cannot be finalized. This has often been the situation in the conflicts unfolding in the Middle East between the Israeli and the Palestinian. Since the second Intifada, targeted killing raises an important question mark and ensures a comprehensive debate in terms of the ethic nature of the practice and mentality that lays at the foundation of the decision making on targeted killing policy.
Buzan, Barry. People, States, and Fear: An Agenda for International Security Studies in the Post-Cold War Era. Brighton: Wheatsheaf, 1983
Colonomos, Ariel. Precision in Uncertain times: targeting as a mode of justification of the use of force. David Chandler and Volker Heins (eds) Ethical Foreign Policy. Routledge, 2009.
Gross, Michael. "Moral Dillemas of Modern War: Torture, assassination, and blackmail in an age of asymmetrical conflict." 2010. Cambridge University Press, NY.
Gross, Michael. "Assassination and targeted killing." Journal of Applied Philosophy, vol