Assassination, Citizenship, and the Limits of Political Authority

We are perhaps more familiar with public figures being assassinated by private citizens than with private citizens being assassinated by states. But two weeks ago, it was reported that the Obama Administration has approved and implemented a policy whereby American citizens can be made the targets of assassination by their own government. Although it initially received some attention in the media, including harsh criticism from the likes of Glen Greenwald (see Greenwald’s take here), the American public was nonplussed, and the story has since disappeared from the headlines. Nonetheless, the Obama Administration’s assassination policy raises a host of philosophical and ethical questions.

For instance, is it ever morally permissible for a government to kill its own citizens? If so, can assassination be an instance of legitimate government killing? If so, when? If not, what is the morally relevant difference between assassination and (say) capital punishment? It is noteworthy that critics of the Obama Administration’s assassination policy tend to fixate on the problems associated with killing citizens without due process. One wonders, though, whether this objection can be sustained in a plausible and principled way without being extended to non-citizens alike. Of course, these questions only scratch the surface, but they make plain why people would do well to start thinking hard about the kinds of authority we tacitly grant to our governments.

Related Articles:

Citizenship and The State
By M. Victoria Costa , Florida State University
(Vol. 4, December 2009)
Philosophy Compass

Kant’s Formula of the End in Itself: Some Recent Debates
By Lara Denis , Agnes Scott College
(Vol. 2, February 2007)
Philosophy Compass

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