Justice or Assassination?

23 May 2016
Author: Robert Precht



A Presidentially Ordered Assassination 

This week we learned that President Obama authorized the assassination of a perceived enemy of America, the leader of the Taliban. A U.S. drone attack killed Mullah Akhtar Muhammad Mansour in Pakistan. Pakistan was not given prior notice of the attack and has objected to the U.S. action as an infringement on its sovereignty. Calling the death "an important milestone," Obama said that the death had removed an obstacle to the U.S.'s counterterrorism efforts. "He is an individual who was specifically targeting U.S. personnel and troops inside Afghanistan who are there as part of the mission I have set to maintain a counterterrorism platform and provide assistance." President Obama presented the drone attack as a victory in the ongoing war against terrorism, but was it justice?

The Appeal of a Military Approach to Fighting Terror

We have witnessed a transformation in the Western world’s relationship to terrorism since September 11, 2001. Terror is no longer seen as a relatively isolated event. It’s now a chronic condition that affects us all, both in the frequency and scale of attacks. It has become the persistent fear and insecurity we experience when we travel or visit large public spaces, and the often inconvenient and ubiquitous security measures to which we are subject in our daily lives. The recent attacks in Paris and Brussels give credence to those who argue that the military, not the courts, should take the lead in confronting  terrorism. We should try to prevent terrorism, according to this argument, even if it requires blunt instruments that yield imprecise results. We must use drones to attack terror strongholds, tighten border controls, and increase surveillance of immigrant neighborhoods. This might result in civilian deaths, refugees being denied sanctuary, and large scale discrimination against our immigrant neighbors, but aren’t there always innocent victims in any war? The military approach operates on prevention and collective punishment. A trial, however, in ways diametrically opposed to a military campaign, focuses decision makers on rendering individualized justice based on facts, not emotions.

The Missing Ingredient: Truth-Finding

The Taliban leader killed this week by a U.S. drone may have been absolutely guilty of the crimes that President Obama accuses him of. Unfortunately, we will never know, because there was no trial.  There wasn't even an indictment detailing the evidence that, if believed, made this man guilty. Proponents of the military approach may argue that individualized justice is a luxury we can no longer afford. Even if I agreed with that argument, and I don't, we need to be clear-headed about what we lose when we abandon notions of individualized justice. Most importantly we lose any assurance that the truth has been discovered. Since there was no trial, the world must rely on the word of President Obama and the U.S. military that the Taliban leader was guilty. But there are many in the world who won't rely on their word, and they may believe that the U.S is simply a lawless vigilante. Drone attacks short-circuit the truth seeking process. They may eliminate perceived enemies of the U.S., but they do so at a terrible cost. They rob U.S. actions of legitimacy, risk angering allies, and sow the seeds of future violence by energizing the friends and families of murdered relatives to seek revenge. When the politicians of one country assassinate those of another, do they not invite assassination attempts at home? 

The Need for Legal Process

I am not a moral purist. I am not arguing that targeted drone attacks are never justified. I think though that an equivalent effort needs to be made to make sure those who are targeted for execution by the U.S. and its allies are in fact guilty. There must  be some open and transparent process of presenting and testing evidence of guilt.

As a start: before drone attacks are authorized there should at least be an indictment that presents the U.S. government's evidence of guilt. If the defendant refuses to surrender to U.S. authorities or if the country harboring the defendant refuses to cooperate in arresting the suspect, then and only then is a drone attack authorized. Some will argue that an indictment would disclose military secrets that would harm the fight against terrorism. In my opinion whatever the harm of disclosing secrets might be, it is outweighed by the harm of summary drone attacks that are likely to engender hatred of West and that send the message that rule of law is not important.


One can reasonably disagree on what is just. Justice must always take into account complex and contradictory factors. But one cannot reasonably disagree on what is true. Without a trial of some sort it is impossible to know what is true. And truth is the beginning of justice.