Apparently, at least eleven U.S. senators and a number of news organizations are concerned about the U.S. use of drone aircraft to kill individuals or small groups whom the Administration determines are a threat to U.S. security. Like most thinking individuals, I believe in checks and balances and Constitutional limitations on the power of any one branch of government, having witnessed and lived through periods of both Congressional and Administration abuse of power, not to mention having concerns about that potential from the Judicial Branch.
Two particular concerns raised by these individuals, however, concern me just as much as the possibility of Executive Branch abuse of power does. The first concern is the idea that an American citizen abroad plotting terrorist activities is somehow different from any other individual plotting terrorist activities. A related concern that has been expressed by some is that the memos being sought allow the president the “power to kill” any American anywhere with no oversight and no legal process. The second major concern is the idea that somehow drone attacks away from the battlefield are in themselves wrong.
What has led to these concerns is that the nature of war and conflict have changed, or rather war has changed, perhaps regressed, from an almost formal pattern of conflict that prevailed for centuries to a wide range of the use of force, including the possible use of everything from terrorism and counter-terrorism to the possible employment of nuclear weapons on a civilization-destroying basis. And neither tactics, strategies, nor legalities have totally kept pace.
All that said, I’m sorry, but a terrorist is a terrorist, regardless of nationality. There may be very good reasons to limit drone attacks on individuals, but whether the target is an American or a foreign national is not one of them. At the same time, allowing the precedent of targeting an American citizen without due process raises another question. When and where does an American citizen become an enemy combatant? Saying that the president or the armed forces cannot attack or kill an American citizen plotting terrorist acts against Americans and others without a warrant is ludicrous, but allowing the president or the government authority to kill expatriate citizens, or other citizen, or for that matter foreign nationals, without defining the conditions that justify such actions could easily allow the “legal” transition to a type of police state.
The question of allowing drone attacks is, at least to me, somewhat less problematic. There certainly are areas and places and individuals against which drones should not be used, for any number of good and legal, not to mention moral, reasons, but in a world where terror can and has struck anywhere, where terrorists and those supporting them do not limit themselves to a defined battlefield and never will, the idea of limiting the use of drones to a defined battlefield is not only absurd, but also runs the considerable risk of resulting in the killing of not only more soldiers but more civilians. If one cannot use drones away from the battlefield, then what are the options left to the government? Terrorists do not respond to negotiations, if indeed, they could even be found for such negotiations; they just want their demands for power met, and virtually every terrorist group ends up killing and oppressing others when it obtains power. If drones cannot be used, then governments must either do nothing or use other means of force, and that usually means either economic sanctions or boots on the ground, both of which fall disproportionately upon the innocent.
Both of these concerns, if carried to extremes, reflect a certain naiveté, if I’m being kind, or a willful blindness in the service of ideology, if I’m being more honest.
Is there that much difference between someone who shoots someone in a gang war or a robbery and someone who shoots innocents in pursuit of political power? In either case, people are dead because someone wants something and believes they can get it in no other way. And in the United States, we have plenty of American citizens, unfortunately, who kill to get something, whether that something is fame, glory, material goods, revenge, or to take their anger out on others. While we do have means to deal with such individuals, assuming we can discover and apprehend them, those mechanisms do not operate overseas, and many countries, especially in parts of Asia and the Middle East, are either actively or passively endorsing terrorists.
The Senate is right to look into the policies adopted and employed by the military and intelligence agencies, but to insist on pre-conditions that exempt all Americans from actions to preclude terrorism or those which may effectively leave our government with no effective way to deal with terrorists in certain countries is anything but wise.