The NYT and “Targeted Killings”: Which Fork to Use?

The NYT Room for Debate of yesterday led with the question: How can Targeted Killings Ever Be Justified? It was followed by the caption: Are government-sponsored assassinations ever appropriate?

There are several things to say about the “debate.”

The wistfully posed interrogative–in the aftermath of Israel’s killing of a Hamas leader, and massacre of 19 civilians and children*–was astounding. The title of the “debate” is notable for the assumption that targeted killings are to be taken for granted.  The topic of the debate is not “whether” targeted killings can ever be justified…but how?  The subtitle confirms the unspoken premise in the initial question: Are “government-led” murders ever appropriate?

The NYT Debate has elevated the ethical question of state-led killing to the plane of discussing etiquette. The question is not whether to use a fork. But which one? And when?

Translation: What are the creative and varying ways by which Israel or the U.S.–the only states permitted to engage in extrajudicial murders of alleged terrorists or civilians without repercussions–can justify a system of focused, intended assassinations? Given that they will happen from now on with regularity, can an ineffectual and impotent public, led by an obedient media, find a way to approve and support extrajudicial state actions?

Predictably, The Times found some ready takers for both sides of the “debate.” Remember, the debate was not whether…but how targeted killings could be justified. The NYT “Debate” became a forum for 5 people on a narrow spectrum of 0 to 0.2 (ranging from “justified most of the time” to “justified some of the time”). And true to themselves, each followed the premise like an obedient cocker spaniel: it’s ok to have targeted killings, as long as you can justify them in some framework. Objective commentators, to be sure.

Perhaps the most egregious was the notorious Alan Dershowitz, Harvard Law Faculty and “civil rights lawyer” of “Ticking Time Bomb” fame.  Dershowitz, also accused of plagiarism, has made a reputation justifying the torture of alleged terrorists. By alleged terrorists, he refers to those who were charged with nothing, from whom no evidence could be extracted until they were put “on the rack.” The complete disutility of the information could be garnered by putting me on the rack; I guarantee that in seconds a torture agent could induce me to confirm that Barry Manilow is the second coming of Christ.

Dershowitz’s considered position on torture posited an unlikely scenario where there could very well be a ticking time bomb that might go off and endanger multiple lives. The only one who knows the location of the bomb is the Evil Guy—without explanation or proof, we just know that he was evil—and the only way we can save multiple lives is by torturing Evil Guy to give up the evidence. Here is an aptly titled critique of Dershowitz’s pro-torture position from 2004, entitled “Alan Dershowitz, Professor of Torture.” Short piece, but complete and still relevant.

In yesterday’s NYT debate, Dershowitz offered a specious critique of the point that extra-judicial killings are illegal: he points to military actions, killing in self-defense, and shooting a fleeing felon as extra-judicial and yet accepted practice.

In one way, he is right: military killings ARE extra-judicial and accepted practice, as we’ve seen over the last decade, especially if

1. there is no official declaration of war.

2. a majority of elected representatives succumb to the hysterical agenda that calls for invading or bombing a country without sufficient evidence of the threat.

3. that courageous force of accountability—the media—parrots the spin disseminated by its government.

4. a nation agrees to cover up the destruction and damage to its own troops by a rogue nation.

In other ways, Dershowitz is flat wrong: the legality of shooting a fleeing felon—depends on who did the shooting: A cop? A person in their home? Someone on the street? He’s also wrong about killing in self-defense, an act that is often arbitrated in court and these days—by the state–to determine whether the killing was necessary for self-defense.  Occasionally, the murders are done by an enlisted soldier during his down-time, and the media decides that the luridness of the event will increase profits more than a canine-fealty to the state’s spin. After that, we put on a show-trial. That is to say: a trial in which we charge low-ranking actors to burnish the pretense that we care about justice.

What is even more specious in the above “debate” is Dershowitz’s “lesser of 2 evils” justification. I know. You thought we were safe from this phrase for at least a month past election season. You were wrong.

“The alternatives to targeted killing are either to allow terrorists free rein in targeting civilians or to engage in undertargeted military actions that are likely to cause more casualties. Targeted assassination will often be the least bad alternative in an inevitable choice of evils.”

It’s hard to know what “undertargeted” means—perhaps the Big D is trying to suggest that targeted drones are better than rockets.  Still, notice the consonance of Dershowitz’s position with NPR’s “objective” view:

“Hamas has now fired more than 130 rockets toward southern Israel and the Israeli military continues to fire at targets in Gaza. Palestinian officials report at least 13 deaths on their side of the border. The death toll in Israel remains at three.”

Hamas fires rockets toward Israel, but Israel fires at “targets.” Targets that include children. The “undertargeted” actions taken by Hamas still resulted in fewer—yes—fewer deaths than the “targeted” killings taken by Israel.

So, are Israeli rockets just in need of eyeglasses? As things stand, undertargeted killings appear to be substantially less lethal than targeted ones.  If targeted killings are “less bad” than “undertargeted” military actions, which are presumably random massacres, then why are so many civilians and children being killed in the process of “targeting” alleged terrorists?

“Targeted killings” are the “least bad alternative.” That must be why we saw the Senate non-partisan unanimous resolution supporting Israel’s “right to self-defense” on Thursday. Wait, how does that go again? Oh, right. The Democrats = less evil.

If the NYT really wanted a debate, then why not choose Ali Abunimah, a Palestinian American journalist and activist, who has not been interviewed by a single U.S. news station?

Is he committing too much truth? Ok, then, how about Stephen R. David, who wrote a careful criticism of “Israel’s Policy of Targeted Killing” way back in 2003 (the full pdf version of the article can be found on his wiki site)? for Ethics and International Affairs? As Professor of International Relations and Vice Dean for Undergraduate Education at Johns Hopkins University, David is hardly a left-wing kook.

Aside from the fact that the NYT has presented a framework that relegates Gaza’s reality to the level of table manners, it has erased the significance of the hundreds of bombs that have fallen in Gaza and the hundreds of civilian casualties that have resulted.

The NYT also assumes that Israel’s intended target, Hamas’ “subcontractor” Ahmed Jhabari, was the “threat” to be overcome. But according to Haaretz, Jhabari “was…Israel’s partner in the negotiations for the release of Gilad Shalit; it was he who ensured the captive soldier’s welfare and safety, and it was he who saw to Shalit’s return home last fall.”  Haaretz also points out that “in return for enforcing the quiet, which was never perfect, Israel funded the Hamas regime through the flow of shekels in armored trucks to banks in Gaza, and continued to supply infrastructure and medical services to the inhabitants of the Gaza Strip.”  If Jhabari is the representative in charge of negotiating the cease-fire, then why is he the target? Moreover, if Jhabari was the “precise” target, then why are so many Palestinian civilians dead?

So, the real—and only–question at stake in the NYT Debate is how to rationalize the killings. Killings. Plural. Because alongside the “targets” that apparently Israel is “better” off focusing on rather than a mass, ‘untargeted’ war or massacre or genocide, multiple civilians and children are being burned to death.

As Glenn Greenwald wrote yesterday, the template of targeted killings is now on the table for both the United States and Israel. We can hardly point to Israel’s wrongdoing without also condemning the U.S.’s position on this. But why does that have to mean that every American news station and media channel—from CNN to MSNBC to the New York Times–has to find ways to rationalize wrong-doing by the state—American or Israeli?

Is it EVER ok to use my salad fork for my main course?


*An earlier version incorrectly reported 14 deaths of Palestinian civilians and children.

Author: Falguni A. Sheth

I'm a philosopher and political analyst who writes about all kinds of things, from national security, US politics, race, terrorism, miscegenation, feminism, philosophy, and whatever else captivates my attention. My views are idiosyncratic. I'd like to believe they're carefully considered, and I'm not particularly interested in following crowds.

3 thoughts on “The NYT and “Targeted Killings”: Which Fork to Use?”

  1. You mention Alan Dershowitz. Has he been recently regenerated? I just saw him on C-Span on some panel or other.

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