Thursday, March 07, 2013

Drone wars

It’s striking, but not surprising, how quickly the conversation moved from using drones to target American citizens abroad (e.g. al-Awlaki), to domestic drones, to using domestic drones to target American citizens on US soil (i.e. Eric Holder’s recent letter to Rand Paul).

A few quick reactions:

i) Some hawks (e.g. Andrew McCarthy, John Yoo, Charles Krauthammer) have defended a president’s authority to target Americans abroad without due process. One off-cited comparison is the civil war, where Union soldiers killed Confederate soldiers. But there are two potential problems with that comparison:

a) There are intelligent Americans who don’t think the Federal gov’t ever had the legal authority to wage war on the South. They think states of the Union have the Constitutional right to secede.

Now, I’m not going to debate the pros and cons of that argument. My point is simply that when some hawks cite the civil war as precedent, that’s a legal premise that the opposing side doesn’t necessarily grant. The comparison only works if both sides concede the comparison.

b) Moreover, even if we grant the comparison, Confederate soldiers were combatants. By contrast, some hawks are defending the authority of the president to target American noncombatants abroad.

Now, the distinction between combatants and noncombatants is often morally inconsequential. I’m not saying it’s intrinsically wrong to kill a noncombatant. I’m just considering the hawkish argument on its own terms. The comparison breaks down.

ii) In addition, a stated rationale for targeted Americans abroad without due process is because it’s not feasible to conduct impromptu trials on the battlefield.

However, whatever the merits of that argument, that same argument cuts against targeting American citizens on American soil without due process.

iii) Now, it might be argued that law enforcement does that the authority to kill American citizens without due process. For instance, isn’t that what happens when police get into a shootout with bank robbers?

a) However, doesn’t that involve a basic difference between local authorities and Federal authorities? Between soldiers and policemen?

b) Perhaps that line blurs in the case of ATF and the FBI. Mind you, Ruby Ridge and the Waco siege illustrate the problems when that line is blurred. Of course, the 1985 MOVE bombing in Philly is an example of how badly local authorities can botch a law-enforcement operation.

iv) Holder has since backtracked on his original statement. But if the Obama administration did intend to use domestic drones to assassinate American citizens on American soil, we really wouldn’t expect the administration to publicly announce its intentions. In an unguarded moment, Holder said what the boss really thought.

In addition, this issue touched a raw nerve because the Obama administration has already earned our distrust with its naked totalitarian impulses.

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