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Strong opinions, weakly held

Assassination is ineffective

People are disconcertingly accepting of torture as a means of getting information from people we detain, and it seems to me that assassinations are even more popular than torture. You just don’t see many people protesting the United States blowing up suspected terrorists in countries like Yemen with missiles fired from Predator drones. It’s sad, because there are many principled objections to be made to the use of assassination as a tactic for fighting terror. A recent study makes it clear that there are practical objections as well — a 2009 study suggests that assassinations are counterproductive:

killing leaders of a religious terrorist group seems to increase the group’s chances of survival from 67 percent to 83 percent.

This week’s New Yorker also has an interesting article about the latest social science on the subject of terrorism. The article is chock full of interesting opinions on terrorists, the causes of terrorism, and the most effective approaches to combatting terrorism.

1 Comment

  1. Didn’t read the linked study, but I am dubious that you can prove any kind of causal relationship between assassination and organizational longevity. There are so many other potential causes for the correlation that I don’t think that sort of study can be anything other than suggestive.

    I don’t view these operations as any different in kind to any other military response to terrorism. I don’t think military responses are very useful in general, but I don’t see what’s different about trying to kill one dude with missiles rather than trying to kill some other dude by invading and occupying the country he was operating out of – except that the former is rather cheaper, will kill vastly fewer people, and is at least as likely to succeed.

    I don’t buy that there is something civilized or superior about massive conventional military operations against the forces of the government of a country, and something uncivilized or improper about firing missiles from drones with the permission of the government of a country. The latter is not clean or pretty and will result in a lot of dead civilians. The former is even less clean and pretty, will result in orders of magnitude more dead civilians, nurture resentments at a national scale, and not incidentally, cost thousands of times as much and get thousands of American soldiers killed.

    If we’d stuck to airstrikes after 9/11 we would have been a lot better off. My point being, the choice is not airstrikes or nothing. It’s airstrikes or even more invasive violence.

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