Review Politics

Liberal Democratic Killing

About: Amélie Férey, Assassinats ciblés: critique du libéralisme armé, CNRS éditions

Targeted assassination campaigns seem increasingly well established as a newly prevalent way of war. Through a comparison between the United States and Israel’s practices of assassination, Amélie Férey analyses the discourses which legitimise this practice despite its apparent incompatibility with political liberalism.

It is a nearly universally accepted axiom that, following Clausewitz, “war is nothing but the continuation of politics by other means.” In Assassinats ciblés: critique du libéralisme armé, Amélie Férey raises three fundamental questions flowing directly from this Clausewitzian principle. First, if a state’s way of war follows from its political culture and practices, how does contemporary war fit within the frame defined by liberal politics? Second, how is this relation between war and politics altered when considering practices lying in the very liminal space between war and peace, such as targeted assassination [1] against anticipated threats? Third, and most concretely, how did a practice widely deemed illegitimate and illiberal – political assassination – become established as a core prerogative of liberal states, one which some of them exercise with increasing frequency? Férey’s work addresses these questions head-on, on the one hand tracing the liberal lineage of the discourses which produce and legitimate targeted assassination in Israel and the United States, and on the other hand demonstrating how these practices imperil the increasingly tenuous link between liberalism and state violence.

Legitimising targeted assassination

In this book, Férey analyses discourses produced concerning targeted assassinations, which seek to “delineate the parameters of the debate” [2] (p. 92) and to render as legitimate a practice once considered incompatible with liberal democratic values. For this discourse analysis, Férey conducted over 40 interviews in Israel, the United States, and France, and asserts that “the original contribution of this book lies in the collection of the testimonies of these actors” (p. 26). These interviews do provide a certain richness to the argument, albeit mostly in the background: the reader may wish for a more substantial presence of these interviews in the text, as the footnotes carry only limited traces of these first-hand accounts (approximately 15 interviews are cited explicitly in the book). The main contribution of this book, rather, lies in the theoretical and genealogical framework put forth by the author, which identifies four discourses which combine in the legitimation of targeted assassinations, namely traditionalist, legal, consequentialist, and substantial discourses of legitimation. Through an in-depth analysis of the legitimating principles asserted by the United States and Israel, Férey demonstrates convincingly that the recourse to (legitimate) targeted assassinations is the product “of political choices which were made, and which therefore could have been not made.” (p. 35)

Comparing Israel and the United States

The first two parts of this work address the traditionalist and legal justifications of targeted assassinations. Here, the author outlines how Israel and the United States came to produce a category of officially sanctioned, legitimate, targeted assassination by opposing it to a category of political assassination simultaneously defined as illegitimate. Férey traces the triple genealogy of targeted assassinations, which – in addition to political assassination – borrow from strategic aerial bombing and from doctrines of preventive defence. The legitimation of targeted assassinations constitutes therefore “a change in the way of war” [3] rather than a phenomenon on its margins (p. 14). The analysis of the processes of legal recognition, particularly of the 2006 decision by the Israeli Supreme Court authorizing targeted assassination in the Palestinian Territories, is here particularly detailed and persuasive. Among others, Férey highlights a fundamental distinction between the exclusive jurisdiction claimed by Israel, which is tied to the specific situation of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and the universalist jurisdiction preferred by the United States. The author, furthermore, notes how these legalistic discourses render moral disagreements in strictly legal terms, whereby a practice deemed legal would by extension necessarily be construed as justified.

The Effectiveness of Targeted Assassination

The third section addresses consequentialist discourses, according to which the effectiveness of targeted assassination justifies their employment. Férey argues for a need to “question the ‘metacriterion’ of effectiveness,” (p. 207) demonstrating how debates on the effectiveness of targeted assassination may tacitly accept the moral legitimacy of this practice (in other words, debates on effectiveness imply that targeted assassination would be acceptable if its usefulness could be asserted) and also depoliticize the choices leading to its employment (p. 211; 246). The final section contains the author’s most fundamental critique: here, Férey argues that the proliferation of targeted assassination calls for a fundamental reappraisal of the meaning of liberal values. Against the legitimating discourses presented in the first three sections, which seek to render liberalism and violence compatible, Férey here proposes a moral-political evaluation of targeted assassinations. This assessment would challenge the compatibility of targeted assassination with a liberal state substantially founded on a “democratic ethos” (p. 300) grounded in the rule of law, an openness to public debate, and the separation of powers restraining excesses of authority.

Scholarly Debates on Targeted Assassination

While the merits of Férey’s book are clear on its own, an anglophone audience may inquire how the book situates itself within the small but well-established literature on targeted assassination in English – a literature with which Férey demonstrates an extensive familiarity. Férey’s book can be situated at the confluence of drone warfare studies, legal studies of targeted killing, and works on liberal warfare; by combining the latter two perspectives, it provides a clear contribution to the debate, with which anglophone scholars would do well to engage.

It first must be made clear that Férey rejects the “misleading association” (p. 16) of targeted killing and the armed drone. While she does not deny that the practice has gained in popularity with the increasing availability of armed drones, she argues that the novelty of the practice lies in the act itself, not in the weapons system employed. Thus, where Chris Fuller, for instance, focuses on the conditions and changing norms which made the development and employment of Predator drones possible (Fuller 2017), Férey opens her book with the assassination of Osama Bin Laden by special force commandos, and notes how Israel applied the doctrine of targeted assassination to a variety of cases (most notably, the aerial strike which led to the 2006 Supreme Court case employed an air-dropped 1-ton bomb (p. 73-74)). For Férey, when critics denounce drone warfare, “the drone in fact acts as a metonymy for a War on Terror whose legality is contested.” (p. 89)

The anglophone book most similar to Férey’s study would be Markus Gunneflo’s Targeted Killing: A Legal and Political History (2016). Gunneflo and Férey share cases – Israel and the United States, with a focus on the 2006 Israel Supreme Court decision – legal genealogical approaches, and even interest in Carl Schmitt and Walter Benjamin’s contrasting conceptions of violence. Where Gunneflo concentrates on a detailed analysis of interpretations of international law – and his book-length legal analysis is, naturally, more detailed than Férey’s section – Férey contextualises this legal discourse among others, demonstrating that the legal justification of targeted killing constitutes only one part of broader processes of legitimation. Following Férey’s distinction between justification and legitimation (p. 21), it could be said that Gunneflo traces the internal “justification” of targeted assassination within existing legal norms, whereas Férey addresses discourses of external legitimation, that is, how targeted assassinations are presented as good and necessary in public-facing discourses. It is, Férey contends, this need for the public legitimation and explanation of violence which constitutes the foundation of liberal political systems (p. 22).

Finally, several books in French and English have sought to explain the link between liberalism and violence, indeed outlining a liberal way of war (Chamayou 2012; Dillon and Reid 2009). Where Michael Dillon and Julian Reid, as well as Grégoire Chamayou locate liberal violence in a mode of power inherent to the liberal policing of ways of life, thus establishing continuity between liberal biopolitics and the “manhunts” of targeted assassination, Férey does not shy away from highlighting the tensions within liberal justifications of state violence and the discursive processes through which these tensions and contradictions are negotiated and resolved. Ultimately, for Férey, targeted assassination is the product of a series of choices, and not the inevitable logical conclusion of liberal values or ways of rule and war.

Assassinations and Sovereignty

Among its significant theoretical contributions, this book offers an innovative threefold conceptualization of the link between targeted assassination, state violence, and sovereignty. The first link lies in the term of targeted assassination itself. As Férey notes, this term first referred to a means of contesting established power through tyrannicide or political assassination (until the seventeenth century), before being embraced by anti-statist terrorist movements in the 19th and early 20th centuries. The creation of a category of legitimate targeted assassinations, in opposition to this tradition of political assassinations, constitutes therefore a case of state recuperation of a technique originally used to contest state power. The second link highlights the partial character of this legitimation. Drawing especially on the Israeli case, Férey notes that the category of legitimate targeted assassinations exists against the backdrop of a category of assassinations which remain secret, extralegal, and unlegitimated. Unlike Ronen Bergman’s Rise and Kill First (2018), Férey draws a sharp distinction between officially sanctioned targeted assassinations, which refer to the liberal rule of law, and those conducted by secret services abroad, without official recognition, which point to an extra-legal conception of sovereign power. These practices exist in parallel, without one necessarily replacing the other. [4] The third link between sovereignty and assassination lies in Férey’s rejection of the conventional argument that targeted strikes promote and perpetuate state failure. On the contrary, she argues, targeted assassinations eliminate challengers to the sovereignty-based international order, and therefore serve to reinforce state power by reaffirming its monopoly on legitimate violence (p. 214-216). This is particularly salient where assassinations take place with the tacit or explicit permission of host governments (p. 217-218).

Targeted assassinations are political choices made with political aims, and we must therefore, Férey argues, consider these choices, their implications, and the alternatives which were discarded. Férey’s critique lies in the fact that legitimating discourses – construing targeted assassinations as normal, legal, effective, and ethically good – sidestep these central questions, rendering assassinations as necessary and inevitable. This book’s genealogical method captures how these choices took place, and captures the fundamental questions raised by this practice. While the book’s discussion is very broad and at times may obscure some nuances deserving of attention (notably on the role of technological discourses [5] and aerial means of warfare in enabling legitimate assassination), this book largely accomplishes its goal. As drone proliferation continues at an ever-increasing pace, and as the legacy of the War on Terror undergoes a reappraisal following the withdrawal of Western troops from Afghanistan, Férey’s problematization of the relations of liberalism, militaristic discourses, and targeted violence will be of value equally to specialists and generalists interested in the history of killing in the name of liberal democracy.

Amélie Férey, Assassinats ciblés: critique du libéralisme armé. Collection « Guerre et stratégie », CNRS éditions, 2020. 368 p., 25 €.

by Emil Archambault, 5 January

Further reading

• Bergman, Ronen. 2018. Rise and Kill First: The Secret History of Israel’s Targeted Assassinations. New York: Random House.
• Chamayou, Grégoire. 2012. Manhunts: A Philosophical History. Princeton: Princeton University Press.
• Dillon, Michael, and Julian Reid. 2009. The Liberal Way of War: Killing to Make Life Live. London: Routledge.
• Férey, Amélie. 2020. Assassinats Ciblés : Critique Du Libéralisme Armé. Collection ‘Guerre et Stratégie’. Paris: CNRS éditions.
• Fuller, Christopher J. 2017. See It/Shoot It: The Secret History of the CIA’s Lethal Drone Program. New Haven: Yale University Press.
• Gunneflo, Markus. 2016. Targeted Killing: A Legal and Political History. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
• Schwarz, Elke. Death Machines: The Ethics of Violent Technologies. Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2018.

To quote this article :

Emil Archambault, « Liberal Democratic Killing », Books and Ideas , 5 January 2022. ISSN : 2105-3030. URL :

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[1Férey deliberately employs “assassinat ciblé” in order to highlight the legal ambiguity of the practice and reject the legitimising discourses she analyses; accordingly, I translate it as “targeted assassination” rather than the more common “targeted killing” (p. 15-16).

[2All quotations from Férey are my own translation.

[3“Un changement dans l’art de la guerre”; “way of war” seems to capture the author’s meaning better than “art of war” in this context.

[4For instance, the recent killing of an Iranian nuclear scientist in Iran, apparently the work of Israeli commandos, would be an instance of the latter category, not of officially sanctioned targeted assassination.

[5On technological legitimations of violence, see for instance Elke Schwarz’s Death Machines: The Ethics of Violent Technologies (2018).

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