Targeting Terrorists

A very unsettling news item recently surfaced about the drones this country has been routinely employing in such places as Pakistan to target terrorist leaders. The very fact that this country would resort to terror to fight terror is disturbing, especially when innocent civilians are killed in the drone strikes. But the rationale for these strikes is even more bothersome, since it puts me in mind of a blog I wrote some time ago about how nation-states set ethics aside when they engage in horrible acts they regard as in “the national interest.” This country was supposed to be above such acts. In this case we are told in a recent HuffPost news item the determination of when and where to use these drones “in the national interest” has become a political issue:

The report, by Michael Isikoff of NBC News, reveals that the Obama administration believes that high-level administration officials — not just the president — may order the killing of “senior operational leaders” of al-Qaida or an associated force even without evidence they are actively plotting against the U.S.

“A lawful killing in self-defense is not an assassination,” states the Justice Department white paper quoted by Isikoff.

The paper states that the U.S. would be able to kill a U.S. citizen overseas when “an informed, high-level official of the U.S. government” determines the target is an imminent threat, when capture would be infeasible and when the operation is “conducted consistent with applicable law of war principles.”

One concern that is receiving a good deal of attention is the possibility of illicit extension of executive power — a constitutional issue that will bear careful scrutiny by constitutional lawyers and political pundits. I am more interested in the moral issue, as we all should be. After all, ours is a democracy that was a signatory to the Geneva Conventions placing “humane” restraints on modern warfare. Those restraints have been found wanting recently by our incarceration of suspected terrorists in Guantanamo. But this policy takes us even further away from the ideals.

The issue here is not so much that this policy allows for the killing of American citizens — which has already been accomplished — but that it condones the killing of suspected terrorists in crowded areas where, regardless of nationality, innocent people will also die. The notion that we — that is to say, this country — routinely order drones into crowded urban areas with the intention to “take out” an alleged leader of al-Qaeda “even without evidence they are actively plotting against the U.S.” on the grounds that this is “consistent with applicable law of war principles” is morally reprehensible. What, precisely, are those principles? And how do we determine which ones are “applicable”?

If the drones were used against presumed terrorists in the streets of Los Angles or New York by our enemies we would assuredly not recognize this as “lawful killing.” What we would not allow to have done to our own citizens in this country — or anywhere else — we should not regard as morally acceptable when done by our own leaders to suspected terrorists, no matter how “high” the level of the “official of the United States” happens to be who makes this dreadful decision.

As a student of rationalization — the attempt to find reasons for doing what we are going to do anyway — I am struck by the claim that “a lawful killing in self-defense is not an assassination.” To begin with, how are those killings in any way “lawful”? What laws apply in this case? — certainly not moral laws. And certainly not moral principles as we can see from the fact that a neutral observer reading about such a “lawful killing” would never agree that it is not an assassination. Imagine what people in other countries must think of this nation when our leaders reason this way. Would we ourselves agree that it is not an assassination if “a lawful killing” targeted, say, the Secretary of Defense, or one of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and killed several innocent bystanders in the process? We would be appalled, and we should be.