Boko Haram and “Extrajudicial Killing”


The Washington Post has an editorial on Nigeria’s efforts to deal with the Boko Haram kidnappings.  Besides condemning these heinous acts, it also complains about the approach to the problem by the government of Nigeria.  Among other things, it notes that the government has, according to human rights groups, resorted to “extrajudicial killings.”

I have no intention here of defending the actions of the Nigerian government, about which I know almost nothing, apart from what I read in the Post.  I would like to point out, however, that there is a certain looseness of thought and expression in the complaint about “extrajudicial killing.”  The sense you get from reading the editorial is that “extrajudicial killing” by a government is necessarily wrong–a violation of “human rights.”  But this is not necessarily the case.


Presumably, an “extrajudicial killing”–if it is not an outright murder by a private person for his own personal reasons–is a killing done by the executive officials of a government, not pursuant to the determination of a court.  Contrary to what the Post carelessly implies, such extrajudicial killing, if done by a legitimate authority, can be permissible.  Just ask, say, Abraham Lincoln, who preserved the Union by ordering–on his own and Congress’s authority, not any court’s–the use of force on a very large scale, which resulted in a lot of deaths.

Acts of war involve extrajudicial killing.  But those acts can be morally permissible if the war itself is morally legitimate.  And they are legally legitimate if they are done by a public authority that has the right to use force on behalf of the community.

Ordinary violations of the law, if they are serious enough to be punished with death,result in a killing  imposed by the executive authority pursuant to the determination of a court.  They are not “extrajudicial.”

Somewhere in between these cases–between war and ordinary crime–there can be a kind of public disorder–insurrection, rebellion– that is serious enough to justify a government’s executive authorities in resorting to force without asking for any court’s permission.  What kinds of situations fit that description is a question of prudence that public officials and citizens are obligated to consider with great care.  It cannot–consistent with the public safety, which is one of the primary responsibilities of government–be settled peremptorily by the suggestion that “extrajudicial killing” is necessarily an impermissible thing.

That brings us back to Nigeria.  I don’t know whether the particular actions taken by the Nigerian government were justifiable or not.  But when you are faced with a group, like Boko Haram, that has the power to kidnap and hold 300 people (!), it is not beyond reason for the government to conclude that it is facing a form of disorder that can only be addressed by the application of extrajudicial force, which might result in extrajudicial killings.

The views expressed here are those of the author, and do not necessarily represent the views of


About Author

Carson Holloway is a political scientist and the author of The Way of Life: John Paul II and the Challenge of Liberal Modernity (Baylor University Press), The Right Darwin? Evolution, Religion, and the Future of Democracy (Spence Publishing), and All Shook Up: Music, Passion and Politics (Spence Publishing), and the editor of a collection of essays entitled Magnanimity and Statesmanship (Lexington Books). His articles have appeared in the Review of Politics, Interpretation: A Journal of Political Philosophy, Perspectives on Political Science, and First Things. He is a regular contributor to the online journal The Public Discourse. Holloway was a 2005-06 William E. Simon Visiting Fellow in Religion and Public Life in the James Madison Program at Princeton University. He received his Ph.D. in political science from Northern Illinois University in 1998.

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