This is familiar territory for India. And the killing of Osama bin Laden has only revived the old debate: If others -- in the past, largely Israel -- can do it, why can't India use the coveted covert option, targeting those known terrorists in Pakistan who are responsible for terror attacks in India?
The Economist has a fine blog on the subject. It also persuasively quotes Ilya Somin, a professor of law at George Mason University on the morality of targeted killings who thinks that
In my view, targeting terrorist leaders is not only defensible, but actually more ethical than going after rank and file terrorists or trying to combat terrorism through purely defensive security measures. The rank and file have far less culpability for terrorist attacks than do their leaders, and killing them is less likely to impair terrorist operations. Purely defensive measures, meanwhile, often impose substantial costs on innocent people and may imperil civil liberties. Despite the possibility of collateral damage inflicted on civilians whom the terrorist leaders use as human shields, targeted assassination of terrorist leaders is less likely to harm innocents than most other strategies for combating terror and more likely to disrupt future terrorist operations.
That does not prove that it should be the only strategy we use, but it does mean that we should reject condemnations of it as somehow immoral.
The arguments have been well-thrashed out in the past and the Economist blog sums it up pithily:
As Hobbes taught, if private reason is authoritative—if each is left to judge for herself what is right—we are left with a chaos of conflicting claims. In that case it seems that "justice" boils down to Thrasymachus' slogan: "Justice is nothing other than the advantage of the stronger".
And then the blog provides an answer to the celebrity legal eagle Alan Dershowitz who wondered why "those who have opposed the very concept of targeted killings should be railing against the killing of Osama Bin Laden" which merits quoting in extenso:
The silence of the usual critics of "illegal", "extrajudicial", targeted killing in the wake of America's killing of Osama bin Laden might reflect hypocrisy, sure. But this can be tough to distinguish from resignation to the fact that Mr Obama didn't submit his case for executing Mr bin Laden to some global civil authority because there isn't one and he didn't have to—because America's the biggest kid on the block and, ultimately, what America says goes. And, if it comes down to it, Britain, France, Italy, Russia and other powerful governments hope America will indulge their own kill-squad adventures with similar approving silences. Of course, if some aggrieved faction in the future seeks retribution through the targeted killing of one of these countries' leaders, that will be raw vengeance, that will be terrorism, that will be an international crime, because, like it or not, that's how it works.
And that perhaps also answers the question posed right at the very beginning of this blog.