The Catholic theory of Just War is wholly insufficient to comment on the the continued prosecution of the so-called “War on Terror.” This theory presupposes a conflict between two or more public authorities, of which the nebulous and ephemeral terrorist alliances that include al-Qaeda most certainly are not. The American invasion of the Taliban-led country of Afghanistan shortly following the 9/11 attacks would fall under this rubric; less clear is the cassus belli for America’s invasion of Iraq.
It seems reasonably clear that the killing of Anwar al-Aulaqi is more appropriately considered as a rather simple assassination, as was Osama bin Laden’s killing before him. While not addressed by Just War theory, assassination nevertheless is a viable military strategy recommended by Sun Tzu and Machiavelli, and was used to greater or lesser degrees by American military forces and her allies during the 20th century. More recent American military operations in the prosecution of the War on Terror have made it clear that assassinations are very much still a part of our tactical arsenal, although they are always referred to as “targeted killings,” to distance these tactics from any negative ethical connotations.
The ethical foundation for most humanists, and indeed of most human societies throughout history, has been the Ethic of Reciprocity, or as it is more familiarly referred to, the “Golden Rule.” According to this ethic, we are exhorted to cultivate a sense of empathy for our fellow human beings, and to treat them in the same manner in which we would be treated. There seems to be no room for compatibility between this ethic and the Just War theory. There is certainly no room for the assassination of “enemy combatants” if one considers the Golden Rule to be a guiding principle. Although I do recognize the expedience of personal self-defence, I fear that we run the risk of losing our moral foundation if we expand this violent loophole to the extent where “defending” 300 million against one man no longer pricks our collective conscience.