Assassination by Drone

Lawfulness of a Lethal Operation Directed Against a U.S. Citizen who is a Senior Operational Leader of Al Qa’ida or An Associated Force

By A. G. Moore 2/7/2013


MQ-9 Reaper Drone
U. S. government photo
public domain
I find myself balking at the idea of having to explain why it’s wrong to assassinate, why the use of judicial oversight is never a luxury but always a necessity. How do I begin to explain that such a policy is both a legal and a moral aberration from civilized conduct?

I’ll focus on the reasoning of Mark McKinnon, former Bush analyst and current Daily Beast contributor, who supports the government assassination policy. McKinnon sums up the views of many when he describes (see: Why Our Drone Warfare Campaign is Right and Moral)  justifications for the extraterritorial assassination of American citizens.

McKinnon lists three arguments in favor of the assassination strikes; all of them may be lumped together under one heading: expediency. McKinnon promises in the title of his article to show that the assassination policy is “right and moral” (translate: good).; however, nowhere in his essay does he actually address the ethics of this policy. What he does address is cost. Drone strikes are cheaper to carry out than a protracted hunt, capture and trial of a target; the strikes involve less risk to U.S. personnel; and the strikes have a lower PR exposure than a more traditional hunt and capture would.

I suspect Mr. McKinnon may have skipped his college intro course in philosophy: as John Stuart Mill explains in great detail, expediency and good are not the same thing. In some other national culture, McKinnon night not have had to justify extraterritorial assassination. However, in the U.S. most people fancy themselves to be “good”. Most people believe they live in a “good” country with “good” principles.

The U.S., after all, provided the modern world with a template for democratic constitutions. Our forefathers enunciated the principle that “all men are created equal”, and while behavior may have defied this ethos, citizens of the U. S. have clung throughout their history to the idea that they adhere to the principle of individual inviolability.

So McKinnon, who advocates for an expedient foreign policy, must explain this policy to a population which wants their government to be both expedient and “good”. This McKinnon does not do. He attempts to equate efficacy–the fact that extraterritorial assassinations are easier, faster and cheaper–with morality. But if we apply that principle to other situations, the fallacy of this equivalency is manifest.

Is it “moral”, or “good”, to build nuclear power plants cheaply, easily and quickly–or to develop vaccines in the same way? Is it “moral”, or “good” to educate children cheaply easily and quickly? In each instance are we not morally obliged to consider the consequences of our efficiency?

I turn here to another philosopher with whom McKinnon seems to have scant acquaintance: Immanuel Kant.  Kant suggested that the principle of universality be applied to an action in order to test its morality. That is, a person should ask, as an action is contemplated, would I want this behavior to become universal–would I want everyone to behave in the same way?

Applying Kant’s test to extraterritorial assassination leads to predictable results. Of course we wouldn’t want nations sending drones to the U.S. in order to assassinate their undesirables. Neither would we want nations, willy-nilly, sending drones into each others territory to assassinate suspected security risks.

So, using the standards of two of the most influential philosophers in Western thought, Mr. McKinnon does not make a case for the morality of extraterritorial assassination. I’m not sure he even makes a case for the efficacy of this policy. While an individual may be eliminated with a drone strike, international law is also battered.

Is it really in our best interest to create an environment where law has no relevance?I know my answer to that question. What’s yours?

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