Assassination is the “killing of a prominent person for political or ideological reasons.”1 In Francis Lawrence’s The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part 2 (2015) Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence) plans to assassinate President Snow (Donald Sutherland). The film suggests that assassinating a political leader who intentionally kills civilians is a justifiable act.
According to International Humanitarian Law, the first rule of war is that “attacks must not be directed against civilians.”2 President Snow routinely violates the first rule of war. In addition to overseeing the Hunger Games that results in the deaths of 23 citizens each year, he bombed District 12, killing thousands of innocent people. To stop Snow from killing more civilians, Katniss plans to assassinate him.
Snow, however, is not the only person who kills civilians. President Alma Coin (Julianne Moore) ordered that bombs be dropped on the Capitol in order to frame Snow for killing refugees. This caused Snow’s own soldiers to turn against him and brought an end to the civil war. Coin also intends to continue the Hunger Games in order to prevent the citizens of the Capitol from seeking vengeance. For both Snow and Coin, killing civilians is justified in certain circumstances.
In the climax of the film, Katniss assassinates President Coin for her bombing of the refugees. (Killing Coin is also an act of revenge for Katniss because her sister died in the bombing.) After killing the President, she shows no regret or remorse, and is later pardoned for her crime. This signals to the viewer that if someone assassinates a President who kills civilians, it is both moral and just. What the film suggests about assassination—that in certain cases it can be justified to prevent future crimes—is relevant to events in the world today.
In Syria, President Bashar al-Assad is not unlike President Snow or President Coin. According to Amnesty International, attacks using barrel bombs have killed more than 11,000 civilians since 2012.3 Since the war began in 2011, more than 200,000 Syrians have died.4 In August 2013, two Syrian rebel groups tried to assassinate Assad, but they failed in their attempt.5
If the United States assassinated President Assad, it could bring an end to the Syrian Civil War, and save the lives of countless civilians; however, directly targeting a political leader for assassination is illegal. In 1981, President Ronald Reagan issued Executive Order 12333: “No person employed by or acting on behalf of the United States Government shall engage in, or conspire to engage in, assassination.”6
Although direct assassination attempts are illegal, a political leader can be assassinated indirectly through airstrikes. In 1986, in response to a terrorist attack plotted by Libya at a Berlin nightclub, President Reagan ordered airstrikes on “the home and headquarters of Libyan leader Colonel Muammar Qadhafi.”7 The President justified the attack because “America was exercising its right to self defence as defined by Article 51 of the UN charter.”8 Although Qadhafi was not killed, the bombing of his home was not illegal. As Nathan Canestaro points out, “the laws of war permit attacks upon valid military targets at any time or place.”9 President Reagan could not directly target Qadhafi for assassination, but if he were killed during the bombing of a valid military target, this would not violate the rules of war.
In Mockingjay Part 2, Katniss’s assassination of President Coin must be seen for what it is: first-degree murder. An assassination is an execution without a court trial. In some cases, it might achieve the same outcome as a court trial—a death sentence—but it could also result in the death of a person who is innocent of any crime. For this reason, assassination is and always should be illegal. To achieve justice, Coin should have stood trial for her war crime, and, if found guilty, been sentenced to death like Snow.
- U.S. Legal, s.v. “Assassination, accessed November 28, 2015, http://definitions.uslegal.com/a/assassination/
- J. M. Henckaerts, “Study on customary international humanitarian law,” International Committee of the Red Cross, https://www.icrc.org/eng/assets/files/other/customary-law-rules.pdf
- “Syria’s ‘Circle of hell’: Barrel bombs in Aleppo bring terror and bloodshed forcing civilians underground,” Amnesty International, May 5, 2015, https://www.amnesty.org/en/latest/news/2015/05/syrias-circle-of-hell-barrel-bombs-in-aleppo/
- Ian Bremmer, “These 5 Facts Explain Bashar Assad’s Hold in Syria,” Time, September 22, 2015, http://time.com/4039940/these-5-facts-explain-bashar-assads-hold-in-syria/
- Ruth Sherlock and Damien McElroy, “Assad prays after assassination claims,” The Telegraph, August 8, 2013, http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/worldnews/middleeast/syria/10231978/Assad-prays-after-assassination-claims.html
- “Executive Order 12333 — United States Intelligence Activities,” May 4, 1981, http://news.findlaw.com/hdocs/docs/terrorism/execorder12333.html#2.11
- Nathan Canestaro, “American Law and Policy on Assassinations of Foreign Leaders: The Practicality of Maintaining the Status Quo,” Boston College International & Comparative Law Review 26, no. 1 (Winter 2003): 24, https://www.bc.edu/content/dam/files/schools/law/lawreviews/journals/bciclr/26_1/01_FMS.htm
- “1986: US launches air strikes on Libya,” BBC, accessed November 29, 2015, http://news.bbc.co.uk/onthisday/hi/dates/stories/april/15/newsid_3975000/3975455.stm
- Canestaro, “American Law and Policy on Assassinations of Foreign Leaders,” 8.