Kill in democracy

Targeted assassination increasingly seems to be establishing itself as a new way of waging war. Based on a comparison between the United States and Israel, Amlie Frey explores the discourses that legitimize this practice, which is difficult to reconcile with political liberalism.

If Clausewitz's postulate according to which “war is a continuation of politics by other means” is well established, the work of Amlie Frey, Targeted assassinations: criticism of armed liberalism focuses on three fundamental questions arising from this principle. First, if states make war like they do politics, how does contemporary war fit within a liberal political framework? Second, how is this relationship between war and politics modified when it concerns practices at the boundary of the spheres of war and peace, such as targeted assassination aimed at anticipated threats? Finally, more concretely, how did a practice widely considered illegitimate and illiberal, political assassination, become a fundamental competence of liberal states? Frey addresses these questions head-on, establishing on the one hand the liberal authorship of the discourses constituting and legitimizing targeted assassination in Israel and the United States, and on the other hand demonstrating how these practices weaken an increasingly tenuous conception of the relationship between liberalism and violence. .

Legitimizing targeted killings

In this work, the author focuses on the analysis of the discourses produced around targeted assassinations seeking to “mark the terms of the debate” (p. 92) and present as legitimate a controversial practice, formerly deemed incompatible with a framework of democratic and liberal values. For this discursive analysis, Frey conducted more than 40 interviews, attesting that “the originality of this book lies in the collection of testimonies from these actors” (p. 26). These interviews bring a certain richness to the subject, often implicitly; that said, we would have liked them to be more present, as we sometimes look for traces of them through the footnotes (around fifteen interviews are explicitly cited throughout the book). The real contribution of this work lies rather in the theoretical and historical framework developed by the author, which presents four types of traditionalist, legalist, consequentialist and substantive discourse working in concert to legitimize targeted assassinations. through an in-depth analysis of the principles of legitimization presented by the United States and Israel, Frey convincingly demonstrates that the use of (legitimate) targeted assassination practices is the fruit of “political choices that were made and therefore could not have been made.” » (p. 35).

Compare Israel and the United States

The first two parts of this work focus on traditionalist and legalist justifications for targeted assassinations. Here, the author traces the way in which Israel and the United States came to constitute a category of legal assassination and recognized targeted assassination as opposed to a category of political assassinations simultaneously defined as illegitimate. Frey notes the threefold historical relationship of targeted assassinations, which in addition to political assassination borrow from strategic bombing and preventive defense doctrines. For this reason, the author presents the legitimization of targeted killings as “a change in the art of war” rather than as a marginal phenomenon (p. 14). The analysis of legal recognition processes, in particular the decision of the Israeli Supreme Court in 2006 allowing targeted assassination in the Palestinian Territories, is very thorough and convincing here. Among other things, Frey notes a fundamental distinction between the exclusive jurisdiction attached to the specific situation of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict supported by Israel, and the universal jurisdiction defended by the United States. The author further notes how these legalist discourses translate moral disputes into strictly legal terms, so as to make a practice constituted as legal just.

How effective are targeted assassinations?

The third section focuses on consequentialist discourses, according to which the effectiveness of targeted killings justifies their use. Frey suggests the need to “question the ‘metacriterion’ of effectiveness” (p. 207) exposing how debates about the effectiveness of targeted killings are conducted while accepting their moral foundations (targeted killing would be acceptable if it could be demonstrated to be effective), and by depoliticizing the choices leading to the use of targeted assassinations (p. 211; 246). The final section contains the author's most fundamental critique: here, Frey argues that the proliferation of targeted killings requires a fundamental questioning of the meaning of liberal values. against the legitimizing discourses exposed in the first three parts of the discourses which aim to make liberalism and violence compatible Frey proposes a critique of the underlying values ​​of targeted assassinations, which would question the compatibility of targeted assassinations with a liberal, fundamentally based rule of law. on a ” thos democratic” (p. 300), an openness to public debate and a separation of powers making it possible to restrict excesses.

This work is one of the few to focus directly on the phenomenon of targeted killings as a whole. By this fact alone, he makes an important contribution to the debate. To situate the originality of the contribution of this work, it is appropriate to evaluate it in the light of two recent works on related subjects, Drone theory by Grégoire Chamayou (2013) and Targeted Killings: A Legal and Political History by Markus Gunneflo (2016).

As its name suggests, Chamayou's work focuses on a specific technology: the armed drone. For Chamayou, targeted assassination and the military drone go hand in hand: targeted assassination finds its expression in the armed drone, which is the direct result of a mode of exercising power through manhunting defining the character of the war against terrorism (Chamayou 2013; 2010 ). For Frey, on the contrary, it is a “deceptive assimilation” of a weapon and a tactic (p. 16); as she demonstrates by introducing the work on the elimination of Osama bin Laden by American naval commandos, targeted assassination cannot be reduced to a single weapons system. The Israeli case also demonstrates the diversity of this technique, the decision of the Israeli Supreme Court on the legality of targeted assassinations resulting from an airstrike using a one-ton bomb (p. 73-74). If, in the case of the American war against terrorism, “the army (the armed drone) acts here as a metonymy for a war against terrorism whose legality raises questions” (p. 89), Frey notes clearly that the criticism of the drone Armed weapons serve as a way of deflecting questions about a form of state violence, namely targeted assassination. While Chamayou sees in the drone a new instance of a fundamental form of political power, a direct product of liberal ideology (see also Dillon and Reid 2009), Frey instead raises the tensions inherent in liberalism concerning the use of state force and how these These are resolved discursively.

The works of Gunneflo and Frey have similar objectives: to trace how an illegitimate practice became legitimate and even preferable to others. But while Gunneflo focuses on an analysis of changing interpretations of international law, Frey prefers to contextualize legal discourse as one legitimizing discourse among others. This difference in approach can be linked to the distinction drawn by Frey between justification and legitimation (p. 21). If Gunneflo focuses on the internal justification of targeted assassinations, which allows the Israeli and American governments to reconcile a new violent practice and the legal norms in force, Frey analyzes the discourses of external legitimization, which present targeted assassinations to society as being beneficial and necessary. This need for external legitimacy, according to Frey, is the very foundation of liberalism, which not only requires the restriction of executive power, but also requires that the exercise of power be publicly explained (p. 22). This distinction between internal justification and external legitimation therefore constitutes the cornerstone of the author's project.

Targeted assassination: a mark of sovereignty

The work therefore offers a major theoretical contribution to the study of contemporary state violence. In particular, it offers a unique perspective on the relationship between targeted assassinations and sovereignty. This problematization is established along three axes. First of all, it establishes itself in the choice of the term “targeted assassination”. As Frey explains, this term primarily refers to a technique of contesting established power, either tyrannicide or political assassination (until the XVIIe century), then becoming the specificity of anti-tatic terrorist movements in the XIXe century and at the turn of the XXe century. The creation of a category of legitimate targeted assassinations, as opposed to this tradition of political assassinations, therefore constitutes the recovery by the state of a technique which, originally, served to challenge it. This trajectory explains the second axis of rapprochement between targeted assassination and sovereignty. Particularly in the case of Israel, the author notes that the legalization and legitimization of targeted assassinations is partial, and accomplished in contrast to a category of assassinations which remain secret and extra-legal. the opposite of the recent work of Ronen Bergman, Get up and kill first (2020), Frey draws a clear demarcation between recognized targeted assassinations, therefore which reflect a liberal conception of the rule of law, and those carried out by the secret services, abroad, without official recognition which reflect an extra-legal conception of sovereign power. That these practices exist in parallel does not mean that one replaces the other. Finally, the opposite of analyzes maintaining that targeted assassination programs weaken state control over the territory where such violence takes place, Frey demonstrates that targeted assassination, by eliminating those challenging the sovereign order, is used as a tool to strengthen state order, making it possible to reaffirm the sovereign monopoly of violence (pp. 214-216), particularly when employed with the tacit or explicit permission of host governments (pp. 217-218).

Targeted assassinations constitute political choices made with political objectives, and it is appropriate, according to Frey, to consider these choices, their implications, as well as the alternatives available. Frey's criticism is due to the fact that legitimizing discourses presenting these assassinations as normal, legal, effective, and moral seek to evacuate these key questions, presenting assassination as a necessary and inevitable practice. The method followed by Frey, the genealogy of targeted assassination, makes it possible to establish how these choices were made and to re-establish the fundamental questions raised by the use of targeted assassinations. If the coverage is very broad and sometimes omits certain nuances which merit further discussion (in particular on the role of technological discourse and aerial violence in the legitimization of the assassination), the fact remains that this work largely accomplishes its objective. As a growing number of European countries seek to acquire armed drones, as the war on terrorism soon enters its third decade, and as a new American president reviews the conduct of the American program of targeted assassinations by drone, it is more appropriate than ever to question the relationships between liberal values, militarist discourses and targeted violence. Amlie Frey's work constitutes an important milestone in this research program and will be of use to both specialist researchers and students seeking to understand the history of the legitimate use of force by liberal democracies.