Considering Extra-judicial Killings

Extrajudicial murder has occurred in multiple countries across the globe in the past few weeks. In Nigeria, the leader of a regional Islamic insurgent group was killed by armed forces in their custody after his followers rought violent havoc across several states in the northern part of the country. In India, a photojournalist snapped armed police murdering a man believed to be a member of an insurgent group, bringing attention to what some consider a long history of illegal killing in the chaotic fringes of the country. In Pakistan, the armed forces have done the same to captured Taliban fighters. In Russia, I wrote recently about the murder of human rights lawyer Natalya Estemirova. There are reports also of recent killings in Sri Lanka, Kenya, and Colombia. Assasination of dissidents and insurgents it not an extinct relic of the Cold War — it remains a regular tool of law enforcement by states in the undeveloped world.

extrajudicial killing 2009

In a modern and developed society, extra-judicial killings are abhorrent and unacceptable. Such acts are an abuse of the state’s monopoly on force. And a government that cannot act in accordance with the law loses its moral foundation against those who oppose its rule and doubt its legitimacy. From a practical perspective, there is also the issue that practical problems will arise with the implemntation. There are inherent risks in this approach in that it risks encouraging more insurgents, loses support among those who witness and learn of the attrocity, international condemnation and further scrutiny. Consider America’s own experience in the last decade — the accidental killing of the Davidian fanatics in Waco, Texas in 1993 brought widespread fear of the federal government from many in the American continental interior, and indirectly resulted in the Oklahoma City terrorist bombing in 1995. That’s the type of blowback that can result from extrajudicial killings.

But is there a point where extra-judicial murder is acceptable? Readers won’t be surprised to hear that my view is nuanced. In the anarchic fringes of the globe, the government has to play by different rules to stay in power and in control. In some instances, a government who’s legitimacy and authority is in doubt must show that it is determined and ready to be ruthless when required. In the case of the Taliban in Pakistan or the insurgents in Nigeria, the enemies of the state have claimed for themselves the right to disrupt civil order, kill civilians and soldiers, and conquer vulnerable territory. There are real risk in putting to trial and imprisoning a popular insurgent leader. Had Hitler been shot by a zealous police officer during his imprisonment, instead of being jailed for a year and writing Mein Kampf, Germany might have gone on to be a normal European country.

Consider this quote from Robert D. Kaplan taken from an interview from ten years ago and before 9/11:

Increasingly we have non-state adversaries who want to kill us, terrorist groups for instance, who are not part of any bureaucratic mechanism of the state. They don’t own territory, they do not have an address. So, for instance, when the U.S. government… announced that it had destroyed the infrastructure of Osama Bin Laden terrorist network, some of the hardware and infrastructure, what did that mean? It meant that they had destroyed a bunch of blow-up tents in the dessert of Afghanistan that you and I could put back together in about two hours. So increasingly these people don’t have an infrastructure that is destroyable. They only way to get them is to kill them. So I think the more unconventional the threat, the more assassinations will come back.

Had the US more aggressively sought to capture or assasinate Bin Laden in 1998 after the US embassy bombings in Kenya and Tanzania (extra-judicial methods), instead of having a grand jury indict him for the murders (judicial methods), the World Trade Center in Manhattan might still be standing. And if we accept that point, I think we have to have a lot more sympathy for the government of Nigeria as they try to keep the peace by executing their own David Koresh.

About Curzon

Lord George Nathaniel Curzon (1859 - 1925) entered the British House of Commons as a Conservative MP in 1886, where he served as undersecretary of India and Foreign Affairs. He was appointed Viceroy of India at the turn of the 20th century where he delineated the North West Frontier Province, ordered a military expedition to Tibet, and unsuccessfully tried to partition the province of Bengal during his six-year tenure. Curzon served as Leader of the House of Lords in Prime Minister Lloyd George's War Cabinet and became Foreign Secretary in January 1919, where his most famous act was the drawing of the Curzon Line between a new Polish state and Russia. His publications include Russia in Central Asia (1889) and Persia and the Persian Question (1892). In real life, "Curzon" is a US citizen from the East Coast who has been a financial analyst, freelance translator, and university professor; he is currently on assignment in Tokyo.
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8 Responses to Considering Extra-judicial Killings

  1. McKellar says:

    I think the subtlety you’re leaving out is that these are not simply actions of the ‘state’, but rather of a particular faction/ethnic group/class within the bureaucratic structure of the state. The big challenge in transitioning from a non-state society, where various groups vie to overpower each other, and a nation-state, where those groups are united, is creating the perception that the state’s structures of power are extensions of an ideal, like a constitution, and not merely an extension of a single faction’s interests.

    Extra-legal killings of terrorists might be very efficient in disposing of terrorists, but it furthers the perception that the GWOT is a ethnic conflict between the white first world and the brown Islamic world, and that peace will only come with one side completely dominating the other. Emphasizing the legalistic and humanistic foundations of the modern nation-state by sending the terrorists through a fair trial may not convince many terrorists to stop fighting either, but the killings need to be legitimated one way or another.

  2. Anymouse says:

    “the perception that the GWOT is a ethnic conflict between the white first world and the brown Islamic world”
    Race conflict is overemphasized in the west. It is not as important as it seems. The conflict is between civilizational rivals, along a religious devide. It is not a conflict between races. If the enemy understands that we will stop attacking once we are secure, we will have peace.

  3. Richard says:

    `In a modern and developed society, extra-judicial killings are abhorrent and unacceptable.`

    Yes but countries such as the the U.S. A. , Israel, and the U.K. have contiuned to it frequently through proxies.

  4. Curzon says:

    I only see Israel and Britain in Northern Island in that link Richard. And it therefore meets the general qualifications of extrajudicial killing where there is room for debate — a government who’s legitimacy and authority is questioned and it exercises its monopoly on force to fight the insurgents.

  5. bristlecone says:

    Assassinations are a more humane way of achieving your goal, just as a smart bomb is more humane than a Dresden-style incendiary attack.

    Presumably, killing a foreign national is clearly an act of war and would be under the same kind of controls that launching a carrier air strike would be. It gets sticky when dealing with your own nationals…do most countries have an equivalent of the US Passe Comitatus Act?

  6. Roy Berman says:

    The notion that full-scale war is somehow more “just” or “humane” than targeted assassination has always struck me as somewhat disingenuous, a holdover from the days when sovereignty rested in monarchs instead of the people. I have a strong feeling that there must be someone who has written a detailed argument that the purpose of such a policy really just to protect the ruling class of every country at the expense of their grunt soldiers, but I can’t actually recall any off the top of my head.

  7. Darcy says:

    During the Salvadoran civil war, death squads achieved notoriety when far-right vigilantes assassinated Archbishop Óscar Romero for his social activism in March 1980 . In December 1980, three American nuns, Ita Ford, Dorothy Kazel, and Maura Clarke, and a lay worker, Jean Donovan, were raped and murdered by a military unit later found to have been acting on specific orders. Death squads were instrumental in killing hundreds of peasants and activists, including such notable priests as Rutilio Grande. Because the death squads involved were found to have been soldiers of the Salvadoran military, which was receiving U.S. funding and training from American advisors during the Carter administration,[6] these events prompted outrage in the U.S. and led to a temporary cutoff in military aid from the Reagan administration[citation needed], although Death Squad activity stretched well into the Reagan years (1981-1989) as well.

  8. PaxAmericana says:

    This seems to assume that developed countries don’t have extra-judicial killings, or at least very few. Many would find this to be risible. The Martin Luther King case is one example, while the Ishii Kouki murder would be another.

    It’s also debatable whether the Branch Davidians’ death was an accident. That’s certainly the position taken by the US government, but, if we could trust them, we wouldn’t be so close to coming anarchy.