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Debating Targeted Killing

Counter-Terrorism or Extrajudicial Execution?

Tamar Meisels and Jeremy Waldron

Publication Date - May 2020

ISBN: 9780190906924

328 pages
5 1/2 x 8 1/4 inches

In Stock


Known terrorists are often targeted for death by the governments of Israel and the United States. Several thousand have been killed by drones or by operatives on the ground in the last twenty years. Is this form of killing justified, when hundreds or thousands of lives are possibly at risk at the hands of a known terrorist? Is there anything about it that should disturb us? Ethically-sound and practical answers to these questions are more difficult to come by than it might seem. Renowned political theorists Jeremy Waldron and Tamar Meisels here defend two competing positions on the legitimacy of targeted killing as used in counterterrorism strategy in this riveting and essential for-and-against book.

The volume begins with a joint introduction, briefly setting out the terms of discussion, and presenting a short historical overview of the practice: what targeted killing is, and how it has been used in which conflicts and by whom. It then hones in on killings themselves and the element of targeting. The authors tackle difficult and infinitely complex subjects, for example the similarities and differences between targeted killing of terrorists and ordinary killings in combat, and they ask whether targeted killing can be regarded as a law enforcement strategy, or as a hybrid between combat and law enforcement. They compare the practice of targeted killing with assassination and the use of death squads. And they consider the likelihood that targeted killing has been or will be abused against insurgents, criminals, or political opponents. Meisels analyzes the assassination by Israeli operatives of nuclear scientists working for regimes hostile to Israel.

Meisels and Waldron carefully consider whether this sort of killing can ever be justified in terms of the danger it, in theory, averts. The conclusions drawn are at once as surprising as they are insightful, cautioning us against a world in which targeted killing is the norm as it proliferates rapidly. This is essential reading not only for students of political and war theory and military personnel, but for anyone interested in or concerned by the future of targeted killing.


  • Provides a timely debate of the rapidly proliferating practice of targeted killing through current events
  • Draws from politics, current events, law, and philosophy to consider targeted killing from numerous vantages
  • Remains international in scope and focus, with authors from the United States and Israel
  • Accessible to wide audiences and freed of overly-technical language

About the Author(s)

Tamar Meisels is a political theorist, associate professor at The School of Political Science, Government and IR, Tel-Aviv University. She is the author of Territorial Rights (Springer, 2005 and 2009), The Trouble with Terror: Liberty, Security and the Response to Terrorism (Cambridge University Press, 2008), Contemporary Just War: Theory and Practice (Routledge, 2017), and co-editor (with Michael L. Gross) of Soft War: The Ethics of Unarmed Conflict (Cambridge University Press, 2017).

Jeremy Waldron is University Professor and Professor of Law at New York University. His recent books include Torture, Terror and Trade-offs: Philosophy for the White House (Oxford, 2010), The Harm in Hate Speech (Harvard University Press, 2012), Political Theory (Harvard University Press, 2016), and One Another's Equals: The Basis of Human Equality (Harvard University Press, 2017). Professor Waldron was elected to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in 1998 and, in 2015, to the American Philosophical Society (which also awarded him its Phillips Prize for Lifetime Achievement in Jurisprudence). He has been a Fellow of the British Academy since 2011.


"The book will certainly be a useful jumping-off point to stimulate discussion, not only in the classroom but elsewhere as well... Recommended. All readers." -- C. W. Herrick, Muhlenberg College

"In this important volume in the Oxford series 'Debating Ethics,' Meisels (School of Political Science, Government, and International Relations, Tel Aviv Univ.) and Waldron (New York Univ.) have done an admirable job of foregrounding the practical and moral conundrums associated with the practice known as 'targeted killing.' Although both authors draw on examples from history, much of their discussion focuses on recent instances in the context of ongoing Middle East conflicts and the 'war on terror.' Both authors provide well-documented evidence and extensive, clearly presented argumentation in support of their positions, presented in the form of a debateâClearly, the debate about this controversial practice of powerful states remains important and unresolved. Consequently, the book will certainly be a useful jumping-off point to stimulate discussion, not only in the classroom but elsewhere as well...Summing Up: Recommended. All readers." -- CHOICE

"Debating Targeted Killing is a balanced book, opening up the topic for civilians as well as experts in IHL [international humanitarian law]. It features all major arguments about the debate in the legal community and even goes beyond that. The authors present their opposing views with expertise and finesse. A very fine read." -- Katharina Stein, Nordic Journal of Human Rights

"Targeted killings, as illustrated by President Trump's decision to assassinate Iran's most senior military official, are an increasingly common phenomenon. When apparently carried out by Russia on UK territory, they generate widespread outrage. But when the American and Israeli governments set precedents that risk dramatically weakening the constraints on official murder, many commentators approve. While avoiding a slugfest, Meisels and Waldron succeed in articulating the strongest possible cases for and against this lamentable practice. Sadly, it seems likely that their sophisticated, illuminating and highly readable exchange will need to be widely read in the years ahead." -- Philip Alston, UN Special Rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights, and John Norton Pomeroy Professor of Law, New York University

"The action of targeted killing brings forth many difficult questions. My personal perspective is both legal and judicial. I wrote one of the few opinions which dealt with the practice of targeted killings. I am convinced that if this book had been available to me while writing that opinion, I would have written a deeper, more conscious opinion. Would I have changed the analysis of my opinion, or the result I had arrived at? The answer to that must be deduced by the reader of this important and in-depth volume, themselves." -- Justice Aharon Barak, Professor of Law, Interdisciplinary Center Herzliya

Table of Contents

    Chapter 1: Introduction
    Chapter 2: For, Tamar Meisels
    Chapter 3: Against, Jeremy Waldron
    Chapter 4: A Reply to Jeremy Waldron, Tamar Meisels
    Chapter 5: A Reply to Tamar Meisels, Jeremy Waldron
    Chapter 6: Conclusion

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