“The phenomenon of targeted killing has been present throughout history. In modern times, targeted killings by States have been very restricted or, to the extent that they are not, any de facto policy has been unofficial and usually denied, and both the justification and the killings themselves have been cloaked in secrecy. When responsibility for illegal targeted killings could be credibly assigned, such killings have been condemned by the international community – including by other States alleged to practice them.” (Alston, 2010)
This quote came up twice in the readings, and is something I’ve read before in, paraphrased or stated differently. International Law, as is my understanding, has, in the latter half of the twentieth century (and earlier, as they mentioned Jefferson admonishing the practice) banned or highly discouraged Assassinations of individuals, particularly outside of wartime engagements. In Vietnam, assassinations were a tool of counterinsurgency, and operations like the Phoenix program saw to the removal of major political and military obstacles to the Vietcong’s defeat. This and other programs were subsequently brought under scrutiny and condemned by various voices after the war had concluded.
My point in bringing this up is to, as several of the longer publications in the “recommended” section elaborated on, point to the fact that this is not a new phenomenon as a practice; as an official procedure, despite official denials, it is quite new and unusual. This is part of a rather complicated, and probably naive, or at least incomplete, take that I have on assassinations and other extreme practices, like the “enhanced interrogations” of the Bush era.
Basically, these kinds of things had been practiced in the dark as long as there had been a “dark” side of governmental extra-state operations. I won’t attempt to nail down any specific historical markers, but the existence of intelligence agencies, and the understanding that one is essentially entering into an organization tasked with violating international law, brought about a world that was rather unanswerable to outside concerns like extra-judicial killings, stealing of foreign country’s state materials, and other practices. It was only in the 21st century that this sort of seemed to come out of the dark and become official policy, the idea being that if one were to actually institute it as part of an official program, essentially to “bureaucratize” it, meant that it would be carried out according to rules that were instituted and could be enforced by an Inspector General or other internal body, and/or Congressional Oversight committee et al. This is actually what I find most disturbing. The notion of a State carrying out an assassination is actually less bothersome to me were it to be handled in a more unofficial capacity, and were it to focus on those also “in the game” that is other foreign officers, established non-state actors etc. This might not be much of a distinction, but to me it always has been at least something to consider.
The difference between an officer on the ground making the decision to brutally interrogate somebody in a particular situation is less disturbing to me than an organized, “efficient,” and official program meant to somehow justify the behavior. I guess what I mean is that component of Justification. Justice is a loose term, and can mean a lot of things in a lot of different circumstances; Chomsky talks of a “higher Justice” in his famous debate with Foucault, and Foucault keeps after him, insisting that his reliance on a fundamental, transcendental, notion of Justice was a complicating factor in wanting a “better justice” to live by. In any case, my point in bringing that up is to say simply that Justice is always relative to the body establishing what is Just. In a vacuum, of the type that existed prior to the official (attempt at) codifying torture, it was not any more or less problematic to torture someone than it is now (obviously that program has been hampered, though I suspect and have read that it is largely just outsourced these days). But when a governing body establishes the legality of something, then all of a sudden there is an argument in terms of law and precedent, and the legal framework that underpins War and international relations becomes the terms on which you argue something that shouldn’t officially exist to begin with.
I guess what I’m getting at is this: Justifying torture or assassination is not something that should be undergone to begin with. And if it is, can’t the international community of activists/politicians/diplomats/internal watchdogs, find a way of debating this outside of that framework, since it is, at the end of the day, not answerable to it anyway? (or so they say when asked about targeted killings etc.)
This is not to advocate for allowing secret killing and torture to occur, but rather to keep it small and precise and only between those clearly involved in a conflict. I’m parsing some issues here for the sake of stating a hypothetical but also because I feel sometimes we debate certain National Security issues as though we were having a civics class debate, when much of the National Security State is, by design, outside of civic responsibility or typical US guidelines. It makes for a catch 22 that I just can’t seem to get my head around. Regardless, I want to make it clear that I disapprove of targeted killings, but I especially disapprove to attempts to legitimize them. They can never be legitimate, because the world in which they are carried out is by its nature, illegitimate. I don’t know what the answer is, but I think it’s more complicated than some Human Rights and Humanitarian concerns sometimes want to have it. Again, maybe I’m just being contrarian and missing the point.