From bin Laden to Gaddafi: the disturbing normality of extrajudicial killing

It seems rather unedifying for pictures of a bloodied, dead man to fill newspaper front pages – and in the following days, for a decomposing human body to be put on public display as smartphones snap away. But the more unsettling aspect comes from the circumstances in which he died – not so much about the mob, and where the final bullet came from, but rather, the French warplanes and US drones that made it all possible.

For what seems clear throughout NATO’s campaign, effectively as air force to the Libyan rebels, is the absence of any reservations that their airstrikes and precision-guided missiles would possibly kill Gaddafi in the process. (Perhaps the French pilots who attacked and scattered the final Gaddafi convoy out of Sirte could consider themselves unlucky that they failed to score a direct hit on the man himself):

“Many outside observers were convinced even at the time [in June] that NATO was in fact desperately hoping to kill Qaddafi since it was clear by then — especially during a period when the tide seemed to shift back and forth between Qaddafi’s forces and the rebels — that he would not relinquish power, no matter what offers were made to him in exchange for doing so. Their suspicions were confirmed when a member of the U.S. House Armed Services Committee, Congressman Mike Turner (R-Ohio), revealed that he had been told by Admiral Samuel Locklear, the U.S. officer commanding NATO’s Joint Operations Command in Naples, Italy, that NATO forces actually were actively targeting Qaddafi.”

What gives this scene greater salience, and what forms its disturbing element, however, is the ease with which attempts to assassinate individual leaders now seem to be made. Just half a year ago now, US special forces slipped into Pakistan, unannounced to local authorities, and killed Osama bin Laden while raiding his compound, and just a few weeks ago, a senior al-Qaeda operative, Anwar al-Awlaki (and a US citizen) was killed by a strike from a US drone while in Yemen.

Is this now to be standard practice, where judge and executioner are effectively the same, an illustration of the powerful doing what might permits?

Perhaps it already is. Last year, the UN’s special rapporteur on extrajudicial executions, presenting a report on the implications of armed drones, criticized US practices, saying that “this strongly asserted but ill-defined license to kill without accountability is not an entitlement which the United States or other states can have without doing grave damage to the rules designed to protect the right to life and prevent extrajudicial executions.”

In this respect, perhaps a comparison of the Obama administration’s security policies to the methods of al-Qaeda doesn’t seem completely ludicrous:

“Under Barack Obama, US policy has in some ways aped al-Qaida, showing a reciprocal lack of respect for sovereign borders and international law when “legitimate” targets present themselves for elimination. This unpromulgated Obama doctrine appears to apply equally to Pakistan-Afghanistan, Libya and the Horn of Africa.”

In Libya, Gaddafi may not have died directly from a NATO munition, but it doesn’t seem to be for want of trying. But what if he did die from a NATO airstrike? Perhaps, recent events suggest, it is something that modern society might not find terribly problematic. As an editorial from Jesuit publication America observed in May after bin Laden’s death:

“The United States, which not so long ago condemned the targeted killing by Israelis of alleged terrorists, appears to have no qualms about itself calling down strikes against those regarded as hostile parties. In authorizing assassination attempts against suspected terrorist leaders, the United States is adopting the methods it finds so reprehensible in terrorist organizations.”

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One thought on “From bin Laden to Gaddafi: the disturbing normality of extrajudicial killing

  1. […] drone strikes have been marked by a turn to ‘pattern of life’ attacks (and not just going after high-profile individuals, as I wrote about last year). Attacks seem to be justified based on whether a proposed target fits a particular profile without […]

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