Death Squads and Death Lists: Targeted Killing and the Character of the State

37 Pages Posted: 19 Mar 2015 Last revised: 25 Apr 2015

See all articles by Jeremy Waldron

Jeremy Waldron

New York University School of Law

Date Written: April 2015


The intention of this paper is to urge critical reflection upon current US practices of targeted killing by considering not just whether acts of targeted killing can be legally justified but also what sort of state we are turning into when we organize the use of lethal force in this way -- maintaining a list of named enemies of the state who are to be eliminated in this way. My paper uses the unpleasant terminology of "death lists" and "death squads" to jolt us into this reflection. Of course, there are differences between the activities of death squads in (say) El Salvador in the early 1980s and the processes by which US special forces, intelligence personnel, and drone operators, kill the individuals named on a list of state enemies, one by one. They are not morally equivalent. But the two sets of phenomena are much closer to one another than we ought to be comfortable with. And we certainly should not be comfortable with a world in which death lists and death squads -- even of the respectable American kind -- become a standard practice and standard operating procedure for all states.

Keywords: death squads,drones, killing, lethal force, military force, rule of law, security, targeted killing, terrorism, war on terror

Suggested Citation

Waldron, Jeremy, Death Squads and Death Lists: Targeted Killing and the Character of the State (April 2015). NYU School of Law, Public Law Research Paper No. 15-08. Available at SSRN: or

Jeremy Waldron (Contact Author)

New York University School of Law ( email )

40 Washington Square South
New York, NY 10012-1099
United States

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