Last week we asked why the US suddenly seems to have litte interest in capturing its enemies alive. We got lots of good answers. Reader Mark suggested that the messy nature of the war on terror has made trying suspected terrorists too difficult — unlike the post-WWII Nurenburg trials, there is no clear framework about how to try detainees like Khalid Sheikh Mohammed. This point is echoed by Matt, who points out that trying terror suspects captured abroad would reveal the government’s processes of identifying and targeting individuals for public review. Similarly, Greg Sanders doubted if the US even has a workable method of trying terror suspects during an ongoing war, and Anothny suggests the US is unlikely to go the the trouble of capturing and publicly trying terror suspects unless it has good reason to: during the ideological contest of the early Cold War the US had a clear political incentive to make itself look just. Pauline looked at the question through the lens of US capabilities, asking “if the individual in question truly does pose an immediate threat to national security what options does the US really have, save relying on the tenuous (or nonexistent) capacities of local law enforcement in places such as Somalia or Yemen?”
None of these responses, however, explains why the U.S. might have wanted Saddam Hussein or Qaddafi dead, neither of whom were terrorists. And why wouldn’t the US want to appear equally just now that the Cold War is over?
Others challenged the premise of the question. Dan Trombly went into detail at his blog, arguing that current US policy isn’t that different from previous decades:
“In other words, killing enemy leaders or accepting that outcome has been a bipartisan U.S. foreign policy component for a long time, varying primarily on pragmatic circumstance. Differentiating the assumed lethality of the hypothetical trial of Hitler from the trial against Saddam relies on what I think is a questionable counterfactual case. The U.S. interest in killing its enemies does not seem particularly sudden. Killing enemy leaders through legal means has been chosen where it has been pragmatic (as in the case of Saddam or Tojo), and ignored where it has not been (as in the case of the various attempts or successful assassinations of the Cold War).”
This could very well be true, but it still begs the following question: under what conditions does it make sense to kill via legal means versus just on sight? For those wanting to read more on this subject see Fabius Maximus.