Fall 2016

Just & Unjust Targeted Killing & Drone Warfare

Michael Laban Walzer

Targeted killing in the “war on terror” and in war generally is subject to familiar and severe moral constraints. The constraints hold across the board; they don't change when drones are the weapon of choice. But the ease with which drones can be used, the relative absence of military risks and political costs, makes it especially tempting not only to use drones more and more, but also to relax the constraining rules under which they are used. It seems clear that the rules have, in fact, been relaxed in the course of the American experience with drone warfare – by presidential decision and without public debate. This essay is an argument for the opening up of the decision process to democratic scrutiny and in defense of the familiar constraints.

MICHAEL WALZER, a Fellow of the American Academy since 1971, is Professor Emeritus of Social Science at the Institute for Advanced Study. He was for many years the Coeditor of Dissent and a contributing editor to The New Republic. He is the author of Just and Unjust Wars (1977), Spheres of Justice (1983), Thick and Thin: Moral Argument at Home and Abroad(1994), and, most recently, The Paradox of Liberation: Secular Revolutions and Religious Counter-revolutions (2015).

It is always a hard question whether new technologies require the revision of old arguments. Targeted killing isn’t new, and I am going to repeat an old argument about it. But targeted killing with drones? Here the old argument, though it still makes sense, leaves me uneasy.

First things first. Untargeted killing, random killing, the bomb in the supermarket, café, or bus station: we call that terrorism, and its condemnation is critically important. No qualifications, no excuses: this is wrongfulness of the first order. We need to be firm in rejecting all apologetic efforts on behalf of terrorists. But someone who takes aim at a particular person, a political official, say, is engaged in a different activity. He may be a “just” assassin, as in Albert Camus’s play by that name, though I don’t think that the justice of the killing depends, as Camus argues, on the killer’s willingness to accept death himself – obviously, Camus hadn’t heard of suicide bombers.1 Justice in assassinations depends on the character of the targeted official, the character of the regime he or she serves, and the immediate political circumstances: what else is there to do? There are often many other things that should be done, or attempted, before sending in the assassins.

But even if assassination is a wrongful act, as it usually is in history if not in literature, the wrongfulness is of a second order. By aiming carefully at a person thought to be guilty of something, by choosing weapons that can be used with discrimination, the assassin indicates his rejection of indiscriminate killing and also his concern about collateral damage. Someone in his organization probably thought that it would be better to kill the official’s extended family or to put a bomb in the restaurant where he and “his kind” regularly dine. A “just” assassin refuses to do that – or, at least, he doesn’t do it. Hence his act, if it is wrong, is not as wrong as terrorism is.  .  .  .


  • 1Albert Camus, The Just Assassins in Caligula and Three Other Plays, trans. Stuart Gilbert (New York: Vintage, 1958).
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