The moral hazards of U.S. drone policy

HO AFP/GETTY IMAGES Two freshly assembled Grey Eagle unmanned aerial vehicles sit on the tarmac at Forward Operating Base Shan … Continued



Two freshly assembled Grey Eagle unmanned aerial vehicles sit on the tarmac at Forward Operating Base Shan in Logar Province, Afghanistan April 11, 2012. In a reversal, President Barack Obama will allow lawmakers access to secret documents outlining the legal justification for drone strikes that kill US citizens abroad who conspire with Al-Qaeda.

The Justice Department has now revealed to Congress that the policy of the United States government is that it is legal for the government to kill an American citizen if “an informed, high-level official” decides that said individual presents an “imminent threat of violent attack against the United States.” This authority, argues the administration, is not subject to external review. This finding was intended to justify the killing in September 2011 of Islamist cleric Anwar al-Awlaki in Yemen.

It was obviously already United States policy that the government could use drones or other means to attack non-U.S. citizens anywhere in the world who meet the same criteria. In Yemen alone, since 2009 the government has authorized over 50 drone strikes, which have killed approximately 400 people there, including 80 civilians.

As a Christian ethicist, I believe these policies to be morally hazardous in themselves and deeply susceptible to disastrous deterioration in future administrations. This path cannot go unchallenged.

Certain pragmatic concerns about these policies are not unique to Christian moral reflection.

We must ask about the damage of our drone policies to our relations with the people and governments of other countries. Our increasingly frequent use of drone attacks in countries where their governments have not consented obviously damages our relations with these governments. Pakistan and Afghanistan are clear examples. Even when governments have consented, the terror of civilians in these countries at the prospect of being zapped by U.S. missiles hovering overhead risks making new enemies for us faster than we can kill the current ones. The inevitable unintended civilian casualties are a certain way to inflame anti-American resentment overall and create an abiding hatred for us in the families, communities, and tribes most directly affected.

We must also worry about excessive government secrecy. The Obama administration has sought to block the efforts of government watchdogs to scrutinize its policies and practices related to drone strikes and their justification. The Bush administration also guarded its secrets zealously. This is becoming a pattern. American democracy is weakened with every further turn away from transparency and accountability, always in the name of national security.

Our national security fixation aids the continued concentration of power in the hands of the executive branch, especially the intelligence and security bureaucracy. The killing of a U.S. citizen without external review simply on the basis of the judgment of “an informed, high-level official” in the security bureaucracy is a chilling expansion of executive branch power over the very lives of our own citizens. The full rationale for this policy, as well as its application in specific cases, must be subject to some form of congressional and judicial review in the interests of the rule of law.

The Christian moral tradition treats war as at best a last resort and requires threshold tests before accepting the tragic moral necessity of occasional resort to war. There is reason to be concerned that our self-perception of being in an endless war on terror has broken the “last resort” trigger mechanism. If we are in a permanent state of war than we no longer need to justify the use of force in any particular venue. We have a permanent pass on all the war-threshold tests and can fire away at anyone who poses an “imminent threat of violent attacks against the United States,” even low-level functionaries in the Yemeni desert.

I suggest that the Cold War conditioned us for over forty years to believe that we were in a semi-permanent state of war requiring appropriately ruthless self-defense measures. Because the Cold War was not primarily a shooting war these measures often fell to our intelligence services, which operated in the shadows with the most limited oversight then as now. It is worrying that the CIA has come to play such a large role in today’s drone strike regime. A permanent war footing gives the CIA and other intelligence agencies ever larger and less accountable chunks of power.

The United States would never accept it if another militarily sophisticated country-China or Russia come to mind-developed a policy in which they routinely launched “targeted” attacks on our soil seeking the deaths of those they identified as “imminent threats” to their national security, accidentally killing innocent Americans on a regular basis.

There is a disturbing combination of American arrogance and self-righteousness at work here. We alone, the exceptional nation, the beacon of freedom and justice, can be trusted with the power to kill our own and others around the world in the name of national self-defense (and global security). And then we concentrate the execution of that policy in the hands of individual officials in the executive branch not subject to external review. This sounds like a people that have forgotten the old biblical claim that “no one is righteous, not one.” Every nation and every individual needs someone looking over their shoulder and checking their exercise of power. All are fallible. Even us.

Dr. David P. Gushee is Distinguished University Professor of Christian Ethics and director of the Center for Theology and Public Life at Mercer University.

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  • WmarkW

    Lurking behind the important issues discussed here, is the increasing complexity of defining the jurisdiction of a government. Traditionally, governments have ruled geographically-defined pieces of land and nearby waters. Today, the United States Navy and Air Force insure that international waters and air remain available for peaceful civilian and commercial use. To strike at “the United States” doesn’t require physically invading our borders, as our nation operates myriad installiations around the world.

    Neither the founding fathers who wrote our Constitution, nor the Church fathers who created Just War Doctrine, could have envisioned the operations of Anwar al-Awlaki. The closest they came was giving Congress the right to punish pirates. The rights of a US citizen who is not within the physical jurisdiction of our country? If he won’t come home, and represents a threat, I don’t think using the jurisdiction of piracy is a stretch.

  • Secular1

    Our constitution, as best as I know does not allow the executive branch to punish us without due process of law. It also does not allow, the executive branch to revoke a US born citizen’s citizenship, at all. While, I concede that our founding fathers never envisioned the situations we are facing today. Though our legal framework is not designed to cope with such situations, there is no reason why we should not augment the current framework to deal with this situation. Augmenting the framework must not be done just by the executive branch. In our form of government, we the people must at least acquiesce to the executive branch’s proposals. As I mentioned there are only two resources, to get us out of this conundrum. We must grant ourselves a framework to revoke a citizen;s citizenship or allow the executive branch to use an alternate judicial due process to condemn our citizens to death, This new process has to maintain the adversarial system, giving the defendant a right to defend – perhaps thru a state paid public defender type construct. The alternate judicial process probably has to be somewhat secret, this is where the public defender approach can be used to maintain the secrecy. But instituting the same has to be in broad daylight for all of us to see.

    We area representative democracy. So when our government does something, it is as if we all are doing collectively. That is the moral hazard we collectively face if these extra judicial executions continue. Providing for the judicial review allowing for the defense of the defendants will uphold our our much cherished due process requirements.