Essay: Death Penalty for Terrorists - Ethical and Just?

Do Terrorists deserve the Death Penalty? Who would judge and deliver this sentence to them? Is this decision ethical? Is it fair? Do Terrorists have rights? These are a few questions that popped to my mind when reading about the current debate in Israel on this controversial issue.

Terrorism as Premeditated Killing

Aside from the definition of terrorism, as a political instrument, we must start looking at it from the obvious perspective: Terrorism is a premeditated act to take human lives. Premeditated Killing = Murder.

“You shall not Murder”...This is the commandment given by the Creator to Moses, so it would be fair to say that only Jews are bound to abide by it; however, the 7 Noahide Laws also state “Do not Murder” meaning that all the non-Jews are bound to them. Therefore, when a terrorist sets himself out to take another human life he is going against G-d, who was very clear about the punishment for Murderers:

“And he that smites any man mortally shall surely be put to death.” - Leviticus 24:17

This pertains even to Jews. So (in all my ignorance) I have a question for the Chief Rabbi Yosef: is the Halakhah (rabbinic interpretation of the Torah) more important than the Torah (Commandments Given by G-d Himself)? A Terrorist is a Terrorist, regardless of his/her religious background (or lack thereof).

Conclusion: premeditated killing is punishable by death. Thus, yes, terrorists deserve the capital punishment.

Special Courts to Trial Terrorists

As Stephen Cheney once suggested we need Special Courts that deal with Terrorism because Civil and Criminal Courts cannot trial effectively such cases (not to mention the fact that they do not protect classified information, like Military Courts do).

The proposed Israel law seeks to “enable both military and state courts to sentence convicted terrorists to death.” (source) but Israel should look into what Stephen Cheney said about the characteristics that an Anti-Terror Court should bear:

“(..) like Military Law it must preserve national secrets in a closed court and it exists to Prevent serious crimes – such as the slaughter of citizens on a large scale – rather than to just penalize after an event. Like Criminal Law, it must weigh evidence such as is available; but like Civil Law, it must have a focus on weighing probabilities before an act happens as it is vital for ensuring national security and public safety by being designed to try to prevent terrorist crimes, condemning on factors other than strict evidence.” - S. Cheney

We highly recommend policy makers to read Anti-Terrorism Law: Close Encounters of a Fourth Degree as it should help them to adjust the legal system to a new Legal Era, where the new challenges to National and International Security are addressed.

Is Death of Terrorists Ethical and Fair?

To answer this question we must look at Acts of Terror as premeditated mass killing, as the plan is always to maximise the number of fatalities. In the case of suicide bombers, who are usually part of the body count as well, the masterminds of such attacks should be put to death because the planner is as guilty as the executor.

"A person may participate in a joint criminal enterprise in various ways: (i) by personally committing the agreed crime as a principal offender; (ii) by assisting or encouraging the principal offender in committing the agreed crime as a co-perpetrator who shares the intent of the joint criminal enterprise; (iii) by acting in furtherance of a particular system in which the crime is committed by reason of the accused’s position of authority or function and with knowledge of the nature of that system and intent to further it." - Trial Chamber in  Stakić 

In the case of Terror shooters, stabbers and plain bombers, the perpetrators should be put to death as it is ethical and fair to do so under the prohibition of “Do not Murder” and the respective punishment “he shall be put to death” - this is fair to the victims' families (who, being victims themselves, get justice and closure) and in the Eyes of G-d who commanded the sentence (i.e. a Mitzvah).

Do Terrorists Have Rights and Who Ensures them?

Article 3 of the Universal Charter of Human Rights (UCHR) states “Everyone has the right to life, liberty and security of person.” although, in a context of Anti-Terrorism, the perpetrator/co-perp should undergo a permanent derogation of certain rights. Besides, where is it written that a terrorist's rights override those of all the other individuals? Our societies have grown used to defend the rights of the aggressors in detriment of the victims' rights – this is unethical and immoral.

Any spiritual book (on which human laws are based upon) defends the rights of the victims (though this assertion of mine may be refuted in the case of Al-Quran); notwithstanding, suspected Terrorists have the right not to “be subjected to torture or to cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment.” (Art. 5 of UCHR) – death is none of these things, in fact it can be quite merciful (if we follow the idea of the Euthanasia advocates) - but they are to lose the right to life, for the reasons presented in the first point.

Suspected Terrorists are also to have the right to have a body that makes sure they are receiving a fair trial:

“I propose (..) that Tribunes be appointed/voted to be present in the sessions of every Anti-Terrorist closed court case, to safeguard citizens against any excessive injustice. Citizens, if they are to be asked to give up some rights, need first a reassurance that the innocent will not suffer false accusations as a consequence.” - Stephen Cheney

I ask three other questions:

  1. Should the presumption of innocence still apply to terrorists? 
  2. In the case of Islamic Terror: by killing them, are we creating martyrs (Suhada)? No, because they are not dying in the act of Jihad; they were caught, trialled and deprived of a “glorious death”. 
  3. Should we even care whether we are creating Suhada or not? 


The way the wave of terrorism is about to rise, specially in Europe, we are to anticipate there won't be enough prison facilities to incarcerate the growing number of terrorists with life sentences – not to mention its cost to Tax Payers. Therefore, not only is the Death Penalty an ethical and just method to deter future attacks but it may also be cost-effective if done quickly after sentencing.

(NB: this issue is very complex and it deserves a deeper analysis. Nevertheless, I thought it appropriate to present the first points to initiate a much wider debate). 

(Image: Beheading of John the Baptist [Detail] - Caravaggio)

[The views expressed in this publication are solely those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of Dissecting Society]


  1. To me personally terrorists should lose ALL rights. If you choose to kill people for politics you don't deserve rights!

    1. I am in total agreement. I would not even given them a trial. I would eliminate them in encounters.

  2. The argument over here centers around the fact that it can cost more than $10 million per death penalty inmate and the large majority of them will die of old age first, even though most murders are committed when people are young. Much of this spending goes to fund lawyers who argue through large numbers of appeals stretching out over decades. Listening to the news, I should get the impression that everyone on death row is innocent and only there due to false accusations and corrupt investigators, but I don't believe the news. When I am in a really bad mood, I ponder if the solution is to execute the lawyers with the inmate, but thankfully I am very rarely in a bad mood.

    1. Hi Looney :D!

      $10Mio per death penalty inmate: while they are in death row? Now I am even more convinced that terrorists must be put to death right after sentencing. Looney, do you think there is also an interest by the prison facilities lobby (I understand they are private now) to charge such amounts per inmate?

      Thanks for your comment :D.


    2. My info about prison costs and management is a bit limited, but here is a bit. A key factor here in the US is the prison guards unions which is a significant cause for runaway costs. Inflation for incarceration is extremely high. 2012 numbers for California gave this at $47k per inmate per year, with New York at $60k per inmate. Blue states run about double the costs of red states. Death penalty inmates run much higher costs. So figure a death penalty conviction can result in $100k per year to keep them behind bars each year for 40 to 60 years. Legal costs are on top of that.

    3. Looney,

      So it has become quite a business. I am guessing almost no one, on the blue side, would want to see inmates (or terrorists for all that matter) being put to death quickly. At the same time, the longer they keep them alive for profit (in many cases) the longer they torture them, which in itself is a violation of their human rights...nice...
      Thank you for your explanation.


  3. "Should the presumption of innocence still apply to terrorists?" - the Roman Law should be applied in Anti-Terror Courts; that is, if you appear before the Judge you are automatically presumed guilty until proven contrary. Terrorists have no right to have rights, and only the insidious would defend otherwise. Will this become a book or what, Max?


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