The role – if any – of targeted killing in the ‘war on terror’

Have you ever heard of the trolley problem?  It goes like this.

There is a runaway trolley barreling down the railway tracks. Ahead, on the tracks, there are five people tied up and unable to move. The trolley is headed straight for them. You are standing some distance off in the train yard, next to a lever. If you pull this lever, the trolley will switch to a different set of tracks. However, you notice that there is one person tied up on the side track. You have two options:

  1. Do nothing, and the trolley kills the five people on the main track.
  2. Pull the lever, diverting the trolley onto the side track where it will kill one person.

Which is the most ethical choice?

In a related twist there is the ‘fat man’ variant:

As before, a trolley is hurtling down a track towards five people. You are on a bridge under which it will pass, and you can stop it by putting something very heavy in front of it. As it happens, there is a very fat man next to you – your only way to stop the trolley is to push him over the bridge and onto the track, killing him to save five. Should you proceed?

Interestingly, some studies show that while some people are ok with pulling the lever (sacrificing one to save five) far fewer are ok with pushing the fat man on to the track.  There appears to be some reluctance to physically intervene to cause another death deliberately (as opposed to pulling a lever).

So what does this have to do with terrorism?  A lot perhaps.

There are reports that at least three Canadians were targeted by a US airstrike in the fight against the so-called Islamic State (IS).  Senior government officials discussed the legality of killing Canadian foreign terrorist fighters in Iraq and Syria after the Harper government joined the coalition against IS.  After much deliberation it was decided that international law allowed for the killing of combatants fighting for IS.

This is an interesting issue and I’d be curious how many Canadians are okay with the deliberate targeting of their fellow citizens, even if they are terrorists.  Shouldn’t we do everything possible to capture them, bring them home and try them in accordance with our laws?  Isn’t that the preferable approach?  In a perfect world, yes.  If we are a nation that claims to follow the rule of law do we not have an obligation to grant that rule of law even to the worst of us?

I have mixed feelings on this issue.  Don’t get me wrong, I have no sympathy for terrorists or those who thought that joining IS was a good idea.  If Canadians in IS die in theatre – it is a war zone after all – their fate is in many ways deserved.  After all, a dead terrorist is a good terrorist.  But deliberate targeting?  Is that ethical?

I am not sure what the alternatives are.  Legally there is a supporting argument to be made apparently.  Also, location and extraction are very difficult and could subject our – or our allies’ – militaries to danger or death.  Would we want to subject those fighting terrorism on our behalf to risk to save the lives of those who see us as the enemy?

It will be interesting to see where this all goes.  Will the families of the dead terrorists sue the government for its actions (as if we haven’t had enough terrorism-related lawsuits and settlements in this country)?  Will the government feel it has to provide compensation?  Curious minds want to know.

This news just shows once again that the ill-named ‘war on terrorism’ is complicated.  It is one thing to launch a missile against a known target and kill one’s fellow citizens, even if they did join a group bent on (unrealistically as it turns out) our destruction.  It is quite another to deal with the fall-out.

By Phil Gurski

Phil Gurski is the President and CEO of Borealis Threat and Risk Consulting Ltd. Phil is a 32-year veteran of CSE and CSIS and the author of six books on terrorism.

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