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.
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.