The Life and Times of Targeted Killing

Abstract: Against the background of the ongoing shift in the perception of the legality and legitimacy of extraterritorial lethal force in counterterrorism, this thesis analyses the emergence of so-called “targeted killing” in the history of Israel and the US, as well as in international law. It finds that the relationship between targeted killing and law, particularly international law, is not a straightforward case of more or less determinate and legally binding norms being applied to state measures adopted in situations of insecurity (in this case, those of the second Intifada and 9/11) but rather one of a much longer and mutually productive relationship. Making use of the work of Roberto Esposito, Walter Benjamin and Carl Schmitt, and with due attention to the particular historical contexts and the legal and political conditions in which Israel and the US took up their policies of targeted killing, the thesis highlights both the general problem of the precarious relationship between violence and law in the sovereign protection of the political body and the more particular question of the mutually productive relationship between targeted killing and international law. The emergence of targeted killing is accounted for by an analysis of the enactment of certain conceptions of sovereignty, law and political community in the articulation of problems and threats; the provision of answers, definitions and interpretations; and the shaping and gaining in importance of practices over time. In the case of the US, the study goes back to the early 1980s; with Israel, it goes as far back as the birth of the state. Recognising that the question of the lawfulness of targeted killing is far from settled, the thesis argues that targeted killing has the effect of renewing international law’s sanctioning of lethal force in an individualising and deterritorialising fashion that defies conceptions of universal and inalienable human rights by either subordinating human rights to the law of armed conflict or by merging the two, with the effect of simultaneously restraining and licensing targeted killing.

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