Ethical reflections on the death of General Suleimani


The U.S. assassination of Maj. Gen. Qassim Suleimani raises ethical questions that have received short shrift in the outpouring of political concern about what Suleimani’s death may portend for peace in the Middle East.

First, assassination is unethical. There are no exceptions because assassination by another name is murder. Furthermore, the United States is not at war with Iran. If the U.S. decided that Maj. Gen. Suleimani was a terrorist, then the U.S. should have aimed to apprehend him to bring him to trial. Terrorism is a crime, not an act of war. For a fuller treatment of this point, read my book, Just Counterterrorism (available for free download by following this link), or my article, Just Counterterrorism, in the journal, Critical Studies on Terrorism.

Second, whether analyzed from a criminal justice perspective (strongly preferred) or a just war perspective, for any killing to be ethical, reasonable expectations of the killing’s effect must be to aid in moving toward a more just peace. Decapitation has only once proven effective in ending a terror group. In that instance, Peru’s Shining Path terrorists were uniquely dependent upon their leader for motivation, strategy and tactics. Iran’s Revolution Guards were not similarly dependent upon Suleimani. Suleimani’s death may represent a temporary setback for Iran, but will not be the catalyst for Iran abolishing its Revolutionary Guards. Indeed, Suleimani’s death has had the opposite effect, moving the world closer to war as Iran and the U.S. engage in a series of tits for tats.

Seizing unanticipated opportunities can be a good tactic. However, opportunism does not equal pragmatism and is never a substitute for strategy. Sadly, the U.S. apparently lacks a coherent strategy for dealing with geopolitical challenges in the Middle East and globally. In the absence of a strategy, alleged victories will prove frustratingly ephemeral if not disastrous upon closer examination.

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