I apologize for posting on a topic that strays from the theme of our blog (although not entirely.)
I am writing an article which will be published in a OUP volume (see here the contributions in draft form) where I argue that targeted killing, defined as the extrajudicial killing of a named person by a government for a public purpose, can be morally justified outside the battlefield only if the following four conditions are met:
1) it is necessary to avert deaths of innocents;
2) the government has a just cause (this condition is different from the first one);
3) the target is culpable, a true villain; and
4) capturing the villain is not possible.
I think that the three first conditions were met in the case of bin Laden, but I’m unsure about the fourth. We don’t know what happened here but even someone as wretched as bin Laden has to be given the chance to surrender. I’m inclined to think that this last requirement does not stem from any fundamental right that bin Laden has, but rather from what our democracy should be.
A popular justification, that the United States was at war with Al Qaeda, is insufficient to justify targeted killing. If persons outside the battlefield have a moral right not to be killed the government cannot unilaterally extinguish this right by a declaration. The “war” rationale, in my view, only works for the battlefield and places assimilated to it, like military barracks. Thus targeted killings in Afghanistan and similar warlike places are, in principle, justified (provided that a number of stringent conditions for just war obtain; of course, for a pacifist none of this matters.) But imagine that the U.S. government declared “war” on some particularly hated group, like violent sexual offenders. Surely no one would say that the government could start killing them on sight.
There is a literature arguing that assassinating terrorists is the functional equivalent of killing in conventional war, but I’m unconvinced. I think the slope is so slippery here that a humane democracy cannot implement that view without sliding into tyranny. This problem is not hypothetical: witness the declared intention of the Obama administration to kill U.S. citizen Anwar al-Awlaki.
Of course, none of this alters my view that bin Laden was the worst kind of villain, the villain who acts out of evil principles (as opposed to opportunistic villains), and that he deserved to die.
Here is a sensible account of the legal position, arguing that the operation was lawful under international law.