The use of so-called drone airplanes to target and kill suspected terrorists is in the news again. Some in the U.S. have voiced what in my view are justified yet somewhat myopic concerns about the supposed authority of the U.S. President to target American citizens on foreign or domestic soil. This is one of many cases in which the value of due process clashes with the need to respond to imminent threats. As usual, the executive has a tendency to focus on the latter.
The concerns that have been voiced recently are myopic in the sense that most drone attacks take place abroad and most victims are foreigners. Let’s therefore limit our discussion to the justifiability of targeting foreigners abroad. (These drone attacks, by the way, are just one form of targeted killing – the British SAS and the Israeli Mossad use or have used human operators to stalk and shoot terrorists at home or abroad).
So, we’re talking about governments carrying out the killings, and the targets are suspected foreign terrorists, insurgents or combatants hiding on foreign soil. Governments try to justify such killings by arguing that they and the targets are engaged in armed conflict: a war if not necessarily a declared one. If indeed we are dealing with a war then the targets do not even have to pose an imminent threat when they are killed. A history of violence and a risk of future violence are sufficient reasons to target and kill them. In a war, it’s deemed acceptable to kill unthreatening and even unarmed enemy forces, as long as these forces are hostile and potentially dangerous elements in an ongoing conflict. Targeted killing is therefore seen as equivalent to the normal and traditionally unlimited wartime right to kill enemy soldiers.
That is also why the possibility of apprehension is not considered a sufficient reason to abstain from targeted killing, although in practice most killings are of people who are difficult to apprehend.
So that’s the governmental story about targeted killing. How should we assess this story? There are some good sides to it, and some bad:
- If indeed we’re dealing with a war, then concerns about extra-judicial killings, about the absence of imminent threats and the failure to apprehend when possible do not seem justified. That’s a bog “if” of course. One has the feeling that the “war on terror” has been called a war not because it is one but because it yields the right to kill. And one can even question the traditional right to unlimited killing of soldiers during wartime, as Jeff McMahan has done.
- Drone attacks evidently minimize the risks of casualties on the attacker’s side, even possibly down to zero. Drones may also provide cover for soldiers in the field during regular operations.
- Although these things are difficult to measure given the secrecy of the whole affair, it does seem obvious that drone attacks, when compared to standard military attacks, should in principle involve fewer civilian casualties. (An attempt to measure this is presented here. A less rosy view on the matter is here and here).
- Drone attacks may produce leadership vacuums and lead to disorganization in the terrorist organization. Organizational decapitation may hurt terrorist groups more than regular attacks.
- Drone attacks – especially if they become widespread – mean that the attacking side no longer has skin in the game. As a result, these attacks may remove an important restraint on war. Wars or military adventures may become more common as they become less costly in human terms on the attacker’s side.
- Positing the equivalence with normal wartime killing implies that the drone operators, who are commonly situated far from the battlefield and close to residential areas in the home country, are legitimate targets for retaliation. Ironically, drone attacks may therefore encourage terrorist attacks.
- As already stated, a lot hinges on the use of words. Killing people who aren’t an immediate military threat may be tantamount to extra-judicial execution. And merely labeling those people “combatants” and the operation a “war” isn’t enough to acquire the right to normal wartime killing. It may often be more precise to label terrorist attacks as normal crimes rather than acts of “war”, in which case normal judicial proceedings are more appropriate, which means apprehension and trial, and killing only when apprehension is impossible and a threat is imminent.
- The choice to kill when apprehension is possible means forgoing the possibility to put the target on trial and demonstrate to the world how a civilized country deals with threats. It gives the opposite message that violence is the appropriate form of defense and retaliation.
- Intelligence that could be gathered by capturing and questioning the targets is lost when they are killed.
- The lack of transparency opens the door to abuse, as does the view that an imminent threat is not required.
- Drone attacks often violate the sovereignty of other countries, setting a dangerous precedent.
- Targeted killing may be fatal to the democratic peace theory (see here for more details).
Some of these points carry more weight than others, and some perhaps none at all. Other points could be added. It’s up to the reader to make up his or her own mind, but my view is the following: compared to the general unpleasantness of war, targeted killing isn’t particularly shocking and can even be seen as a step forward. That is, as long as it is really limited to an actual, uncontested war involving real combatants who pose an imminent threat, and a threat that can’t be averted by apprehension and trial.
What is perhaps more shocking than the attacks themselves is the fact that the whole “war” rhetoric has become so vague that anything can be called a war. Is there a crime with which we’re not “at war”? When ordinary criminals – and I consider most terrorists to be ordinary criminals, ordinary except for their particular motivation – can be targeted like enemy soldiers, what is left of criminal justice? Extra-judicial execution then becomes the only form of crime prevention.
More on targeted killing here.