Questions of Morality Regarding Drone Strikes

It was over 1 yr & 2 mos ago when the biggest uproar over a drone strike occurred, unfortunately not even a blip in most media coverage.  A group of teenagers that included a 16 yr old American boy by the name of Abdulrahman al-Aulaqi were targeted and killed (  Abdulrahman had never been accused of a crime.  Nor was he a part of an extremist group.  By all accounts, he was not an advocate of violence unto Americans or anyone else.  Prior to his death he had decided to search out his father, the radical cleric Anwar al-Aulaqi, who he had not seen in 2 yrs.  This led to his demise.  He visited with cousins and met new friends in his short search.  Perhaps some of those he came in contact with were under surveillance.  After all, the US had been on the tail of Anwar for some time (he was killed 2 weeks prior to Abdulrahman).  Maybe the US decided to kill Abdulrahman simply for being the son of Anwar.  Who knows?  The US has never officially addressed this atrocity.

Of course, the reason why there was a greater bit of outcry over the death of this innocent civilian compared to others was the fact that he was an American.  For the sake of greater publicity, reporters acted as if they had caught the US government on a technicality, and in a way, they did.  The US Constitution is supposed to guarantee Americans that a probable cause be established before the law tries to apprehend and the right to a trial on charges unless a culprit resists arrest violently.  In this case it appears that there was no probable cause as it related to Abdulrahman and there definitely was not an attempt to spare his life.  The US government has argued that because we have declared war on Islamist terrorist groups, they do not need congressional or judicial review before killing enemy targets, even if they happen to be American.

However, as several prominent government officials have pointed out to justify interrogation techniques, this is not ordinary warfare (or what was ordinary once upon a time) between standing armies.  Terrorist groups do not wear uniforms or operate out of permanent bases.  To avoid getting snuffed out all at once by superior firepower, they do not typically congregate and travel in large troops.  Most of them split their time between farming and fighting.  They also predominantly come from communities segregated by tribal bonds.  That means that there is a great pressure for tribal brethren to keep quiet about insurgents in their communities.  All in all, it makes for a situation where it is a difficult task to identify and target individual enemy combatants when they are not fighting.  Therefore, there is a high potential for collateral damage when employing drone strikes.  Focusing on whether or not an innocent individual is American when it comes to these attacks takes a rather narrow view of our purported values and mores.  I understand why reporters appeal to jingoistic elements of American society, but they shouldn’t have to.  It should be incumbent on us the public to ask the questions that need to be asked and become participants in the way our overseas military and intelligence community operates.

So, what are the questions that we should be asking?  Well, for one, should we abuse our power over other sovereign nations when conducting drone strikes as we have with Pakistan?  If so, when is it permissible?  Who should we target for assassination?  This may sound like an easy response at first in the context of the typical good vs. bad narrative which things seem to slip into in the good ‘ol US of A, but it is not.  To start with, should members of all extremists groups who target Americans be subject to death from on high or should it be restricted to those groups which have explicitly stated their desires to attack the US within its shores?  To illustrate, the Haqqani Network has been the target of a large proportion of drone strikes although they have not expressed any interest to expand their efforts outside of Afghanistan’s borders.  Aside from combatants, there are also propagandists, recruiters, and those who bad-mouth America and plant seeds of sympathy for extremist causes.  Should they be fair game?  Keep in mind that the civilian casualty ratio has been at about 1:5 according to figures put out by the Bureau of Investigative Journalism (  These figures are hard to pinpoint because of unreliable data on the ground and the reluctance of the CIA and JSOC to disclose any information, including the algorithms employed to determine the “acceptable” number of civilian casualties.  What we do know is that the US government has a policy of counting all military-aged males as enemy combatants.  In fact, Abdulrahman would have been counted as such if his history hadn’t been so well documented.  Overall, there is good reason to believe that the civilian casualty ratio is fairly high.

If the public is to have some say in the military activities they fund, the above information begs questions not only of what constitutes an acceptable civilian casualty ratio, but of what level of certitude is necessary to carry out strikes.  As previously mentioned, it has often been hard to distinguish between extremists and peripheral family and friends.  As such, the CIA and JSOC have often relied on patterns drawn from video data to make their determinations.  Once dead, it hardly matters what the truth was given their policy of guilty until proven innocent for all post pubescent males.  I imagine the situation would be akin to conducting video surveillance in the US of alleged drug dealers or members of criminal organizations and operating under the assumption that all males that enter into those spheres, whether based on fact or faulty intelligence, are guilty.  It doesn’t take a genius to see the potential for malfeasance operating with that sort of impunity.

As cliché as it may sound, I always think that applying the Golden Rule helps to clarify issues of morality.  We have had homegrown terrorists like Timothy McVeigh.  How would we react if our government had targeted him and his associates with drone strikes that resulted in comparable civilian casualty ratio to those in the Middle East?  A better example yet, there is a man living in Florida by the name of Luis Posada Carriles who is wanted for extradition to Cuba and Venezuela (  He has been accused of bombing buildings, an airliner, and plotting the assassination of Fidel Castro.  He has admitted to some of those acts of terrorism.  How would we feel if Cuba took the liberty of employing a drone to kill him and whoever was in the vicinity?

I am confident that were the tables turned and the US found itself the recipient of drone strikes, there would be a general public outrage and will for reciprocity.  Unfortunately, similar double standards permeate a great deal of our foreign affairs.  If we stand for matters of dignity, respect, and other tenets of human rights at home, then why do we turn into apostates outside of our borders?  Furthermore, these practices cannot help us in our war against terrorism in the long-term.  Nothing breeds justification for the irrational foundations of extremism like feelings of indignation.

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