Assassination was, obviously enough, not invented by Americans. While we were rather late to the game in this regard (being a young country, we deserve to be cut some slack) we have added our own American touch to the practice. While old school assassinations required that the assassin go in person to do the killing, American assassins can terminate targets across the planet and do so while sitting in a comfy chair. They can do this because we have a variety of Remote Operated Vehicles (ROVs ) or, as they are popularly known, drones. Our standard flying angel of death is the Predator, which was upgraded from a mere surveillance vehicle to a Hellfire missile carrying killing machine.
As might be imagined, the idea that American intelligence services are shooting Hellfire missiles at people (including American citizens) raises various moral and legal questions. Naturally, I will focus on the moral aspect of the matter.
One stock defense of these targeted killings (or, if you prefer, assassinations) is that they are legitimate military operations in a time of war. While this might seem like a rather convenient sort of justification, it is worth considering. After all, if killing in war is morally tolerable, and these attacks are legitimate acts of war, then they could be morally tolerable.
While this oversimplifies things, what morally justifies killing in war tends to be the fact that the actions are conducted within the rules of war and are conducted by legitimate combatants. To use the obvious analogy, if I am boxing someone in a legitimate boxing match, then our beating each other in the face and torso is morally acceptable because we are legitimate combatants operating within the constraints of a rule governed activity. In contrast, if I just start attacking people on the street, then that is quite another matter. It would also be quite another matter if I used a knife in the boxing match or started attacking spectators.
One point of moral concern about the drone attacks conducted by the CIA and other such agencies is that they are not military entities. That is, they would not seem to be legitimate military combatants. This is supported by the intuitive view that when intelligence agents kill people, they are seen as engaged in assassination rather than in combat operations.
An obvious reply is that intelligence agencies could simply be regarded as military entities, although they do not undergo military training, they do not fall under the military chain of command, and they are not subject to the same sort of moral and legal restrictions as the professional military. However, even if they are considered military entities, there is still the question of whether or not such targeted killings are morally acceptable.
One stock argument for these targeted killings is that they are killing terrorists with lower civilians and military casualties than a more conventional approach would create. After all, shooting a Hellfire missile into a house is far less risky (for Americans) than sending in an American special operations team and less damaging than simply bombing the area. As such, this tactic can be justified on utilitarianian grounds: drone killings kill more “bad guys” at the cost of less “good guys” and “innocent folks.” This is a rather appealing line of reasoning, but there are still some concerns.
One concern is that for every intended target killed, drone strikes kill an average of ten civilians. If it is assumed that killing civilians is wrong (which seems reasonable), there is the question of whether or not the killing of the intended targets is worth the deaths of the civilians. To be cynical about it, we do tolerate a certain number of deaths in most aspects of life and regard this as acceptable. For example, tens of thousands of people die in automobile accidents each year, yet we consider driving to be morally acceptable. As another, perhaps more relevant example, we accept civilians casualties as part of war. As such, perhaps this ratio of targets to unintended kills is acceptable under the ethics that governs warfare.
Another concern is that the drone strikes are not aimed at conventional military goals, such as taking a strategic objective or destroying the enemy’s military assets. The objective is to kill (assassinate) a specific person or persons. In some cases these targets have been American citizens, which raises another set of legal and moral concerns. Intuitively, there seems to be an important distinction between, for example, trying to capture a city and trying to kill a specific person.
One obvious counter to this is to cite the example of Operation Vengeance. In WWII, American P-38 fighters were sent to intercept and kill Japanese Admiral Yamamoto. The Americans succeeded in downing Yamamoto’s “Betty” bomber and his body was subsequently found by the Japanese. This, as might be imagined, had a significant impact on the war in terms of morale and as in terms of the elimination of one of the top Japanese leaders.
However, there are some obvious distinctions between the killing of Yamamoto and drone attacks. In Operation Vengeance, the pilots were Army pilots and they engaged armed enemy aircraft in battle (the Japanese escort fighters and armed bombers were shooting back). That is, the operation was clearly a military operation.
It might be replied that these difference are not relevant and that what matters is that a specific individual was targeted for killing. If it was morally acceptable to kill Yamamoto by shooting his plane down, then it would seem equally acceptable to blow up a terrorist with a Hellfire missile.
On one hand, this seems like a reasonable reply. After all, the means do not seem as critical as the results when assessing the ethics of the matter. On the other hand, the process does seem to matter. After all, there does seem to be a moral distinction between a combat mission against armed opponents and a drone shooting a Hellfire missile through an alleged terrorist’s window. To use an obvious analogy, the police can morally down a suspect who is shooting at them, but it would not be acceptable for them to put a bomb in a suspect’s car simply because they found it hard to arrest him.
But, some might say, the fact that the target is a terrorist changes things. While the Japanese did attack Pearl Harbor in a sneak attack, that was a military operation and the war was fought as a war. The modern terrorists do not wear uniforms, they do not fly fighter planes with clear markings, they hide among civilians, and they try to avoid directly engaging with enemy forces in battle. As such, they cannot be engaged using the conventional means or rules of war and perhaps this morally justifies the use of targeted drone attacks. It can also be argued that the targeted drone attacks are morally superior to the terrorists’ tactics. After all, the drones are sent to kill suspected terrorists and the idea is to avoid killing civilians. In contrast, terrorists tend to make no such distinction and their attacks are generally aimed at killing anyone in the area regardless of who they are. Of course, merely being better than a terrorist might not be quite good enough to make the practice morally acceptable.
One final point of concern is one that has been raised by others as well, namely that by engaging in targeted killings we are changing the game by setting a legal and moral precedent. By engaging in the targeted killings of our foes, we present a most eloquent argument for our acceptance of the practice. As such, when Americans become the targets of foreign drones, we will see our robotic chickens come home to roost (and to lay explosive eggs).