Why is murder immoral

"Of course there is morally justifiable killing"

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In an interview with Gianluca Wallisch, he explains why he does not reject tyrannicide and why the West is howling with wolves in Libya and Syria.

DEFAULT: Can there even be a "war on terrorism" as George Bush called it immediately after 9/11?

Steinhoff:Strictly speaking, one cannot wage war against terrorism, because in principle it is nothing more than a method of waging war. At most one can wage a war against terrorists. But if that is to be plausible and consistent, then a war must be waged against all terrorists. However, the USA is not consistent and has repeatedly given shelter to terrorists themselves, for example the Contras in Nicaragua. And in their day they even supported the mujahideen in Afghanistan against the Russians.

DEFAULT: According to their definition, states can also be understood as terrorists. Democratic too?

Steinhoff:Yes, of course, take the Second World War as an example: the Allied bombings of Dresden, the atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki - all of this, of course, was terrorism. State terrorism.

DEFAULT: So "War on Terrorism" is just a slogan that sells well?

Steinhoff: Yes. In the United States it is common practice to declare war on all sorts of things. Against poverty, against drugs, against a bad education system. The more appropriate, if less dramatic, word would be "struggle" or "engagement".

DEFAULT: Is there such a thing as justified killing? The USA seems to understand their retaliatory actions after 9/11 in this sense.

Steinhoff:Of course there is morally justifiable killing, for example in the case of self-defense or killing on demand when a terminally ill person is in unspeakable pain. Even in a political and warlike context, there can of course be situations that justify killing. However, one must bear in mind that the enemy can also justify the killing: Osama bin Laden was of the opinion that the Muslim world was victim of Western attacks through no fault of its own. He reacted to this with drastic, but from his point of view justified means.

DEFAULT: Then the legitimation of killing is just a question of definition?

Steinhoff: Not quite. If there are justified wars, the question still remains whether certain methods are not, after all, excessive. I believe that the US attack on Afghanistan immediately after 9/11 was not actually the last resort. Diplomacy could have been given more leeway. The violence that was used at the time was excessive. And the US attack on Iraq in 2003 had nothing to do with counter-terrorism - so it was unjustified.

DEFAULT: How do you rate the killing of Osama bin Laden by a special command of the US military last May?

Steinhoff: The question of international law is and will of course remain highly controversial. As far as the philosophical-moral dimension is concerned, however, I am of the opinion that this commando action by the USA was entirely legitimate - in the event that there was actually no other option in the medium term. For example, I am not an opponent of the kidnapping of Adolf Eichmann from Argentina by the Israelis in 1960. Well, he wasn't murdered, but at least he was kidnapped - and that was a major international law issue at the time. I don't think this action was immoral. And I find it acceptable today for the US government to take the position that bin Laden would have escaped if the Pakistanis had been involved - something could easily have leaked out.

DEFAULT: Can you just execute someone like Osama Bin Laden?

Steinhoff: If bin Laden did resist the arrest, it does not seem to me morally unjustified to kill him.

DEFAULT: Is tyrannicide a politically and philosophically acceptable category?

Steinhoff: Yes, I definitely consider that to be acceptable. It is a mystery to me how one can categorically exclude something like tyrannicide - especially since even Catholic moral theologies have justified it over and over again in the course of history. To claim that heads of state should only be immune because of their position, I consider a fetishism that all too often comes at the expense of innocent people.

DEFAULT: Assuming the US planned the killing of bin Laden in order to break al-Qaeda's "morale" - would that be an effective strategy?

Steinhoff: I think that's out of the question. Al Qaeda has always been an almost autonomous network. The idea that bin Laden was their mastermind is absurd. The mind behind 9/11 was Khalid Sheikh Mohammed. Today, al-Qaeda is much more flexible and consists entirely of independent cells. Al Qaeda affiliation is often just a slogan. With Bin Laden's killing, the Hydra's decisive, final head was by no means cut off.

DEFAULT: The focus has now shifted to the Arab revolts. How long can you watch the slaughter in Syria when the UN and NATO have intervened so quickly in Libya?

Steinhoff: The West has been watching the oppression of the Syrian people for decades and doesn't have too much of a problem with it. The fact that they are not getting involved now is because they do not want to alienate regional powers. Basically, the West wants to howl with the wolves. In Libya it was clear that Gaddafi would lose. In the case of Syria, it remains to be seen which side will be the right one, i.e. the side of the winner. (The interview was conducted by Gianluca Wallisch. STANDARD print edition, 10/11 September 2011)

Uwe Steinhoff (43) is a German philosopher and works at the universities of Hong Kong and Oxford. Most recently his book "On the Ethics of War and Terrorism" (ISBN 978-3-17-021723-2) was published in German.