A dangerous new precedent is being set in modern warfare. The use of unmanned aerial vehicles, or drones, has reached dizzying new heights, threatening the integrity of our foreign policy and the safety of our constitutional rights. The New America Foundation, a non-partisan think-tank based in D.C., estimates that between 261 and 305 civilians have been killed in targeted drone strikes since 2004. These strikes cross borders and span several combat zones from the wilds of the Pakistani tribal region to the shores of Yemen. American officials have remarked on the usefulness of Predator drones in the war on terror, yet their legality remains opaque. In May of last year, The New York Times reported, “Mr. Obama has placed himself at the helm of a top secret ‘nominations’ process to designate terrorists for kill or capture, of which the capture part has become largely theoretical.” In 2011, the process killed Anwar al-Awlaki, an American citizen turned radical Islamic terrorist in Yemen. In effect, our president ordered the assassination of an American citizen. He ignored due process and the tenants of our constitution. Anwar al-Awlaki was a dangerous man whose teachings have been connected to several terrorist plots, including the shooting at Ford Hood in Texas and an attempted explosion in Times Square. But he was still an American citizen, with all the rights that entails.
Frequent attempts to uncover the legal justification behind the Predator strikes have been stonewalled by both the Bush and Obama administrations. NBC obtained a Justice Department memo on Feb. 6, which concluded, in the words of an NBC correspondent, “that the U.S. government can order the killing of American citizens if they are believed to be ‘senior operational leaders’ of al-Qaida or ‘an associated force.’” While the memo clarified some of the thought process that has dictated American policy for the last six years, it is simply not enough. There must be a national dialogue on the use of UAVs and their place within the armed forces. A frank and honest discussion must occur about the legality of such measures and the ability of the president to maintain a “kill list”—surely President Obama can understand the need for such a measure. The precedent set by the unwarranted killing of American citizens and foreign civilians is simply un-American. We cannot continue to blindly accept a policy without even hearing the legal rational behind it. Ben Franklin once wrote, “Those who would give up essential liberty to purchase a little temporary safety, deserve neither liberty nor safety.” Knowledge of the law and of our government’s justification for its own action is one of those essential liberties. Critics argue that revealing such measures would jeopardize the operational efficiency of our armed forces, but I fail to see how justifying these strikes through our countries legal framework could limit their effectiveness.
Our country’s strength partially stems from the openness of our institutions. To arbitrarily restrict such information is a dangerous step in the wrong direction. This is a direction that threatens our moral credibility in a geopolitically dangerous world. How can we criticize totalitarian regimes when we refuse to justify processes like this to our own citizens? What right do we have to protest the jailing of political protestors in Russia or the religious prosecution of the Falun Gong in China when we systematically place civilians in danger? The scale of our misdeeds is certainly smaller but no less justifiable.
This policy creates problems on the ground as well, the Living Under Drones Project found that the “capacity of the U.S. to strike anywhere at any time led to constant and severe fear, anxiety and stress, especially when taken together with the inability of those on the ground to ensure their own safety.” Such conditions are ripe for the breeding of a new wave of terrorists and religious fanatics. Some academics have questioned the utility of drone strikes. Charles Krauthahammer of The Washington Post, for example, wrote that drone strikes yield “no intelligence about terror networks or terror plans” because “dead terrorists can’t talk.” It seems ridiculous for Obama to legitimize targeted killing but shun the enhanced interrogations of the Bush age. All this is to say that the American public deserves an explanation: a legal explanation grounded in the traditions of this great country rather than the secrecy and oppression we are fighting against.
Colin Scott is a Trinity junior. His column runs every other Monday.