by Bradley Jay Strawser
I wish to thank the Dialog Advisory Group and 3 Quarks Daily for hosting this symposium. I also thank the four commenters, John Fabian Witt, Steven Levine, Feisal Naqvi, and Lisa Hajjar. Each essay raises important points which deserve thorough discussion for which I am grateful.
Before I respond, however, I’ll note that in the intervening time since I wrote the opening essay, the now infamous Department of Justice (DOJ) White Paper on drones was released. This was followed shortly thereafter by the Obama administration agreeing to divulge further memos to congress regarding the killing of US citizens overseas via drone. Needless to say, this is a significant development in the broader drone debate, although much of the release itself can be chalked up to Washington political theater. In terms of substance, the White Paper does not provide much new information regarding the administration’s legal and moral reasoning behind US drone operations – they have made similar overtures defending the practice in other venues. The DOJ argument is that lethal drone strikes, to be justified, must meet a three part test which they claim the strikes carried out by the US do meet. First, the individual in question must be reasonably deemed to pose an imminent threat; second, capture must be infeasible; and, third, the killing must be carried out according to standard “law of war principles,” such as proportionality, distinction, and the like.
The pressing moral issue for present drone operations, then, is not the principle of such action, as it is claimed and represented in this White Paper. For, in principle, the killing of a liable person who poses an imminent threat to innocents in order to block his or her threat, when the strictures of necessity and proportionality have been met, is perfectly legitimate. This is simply the traditional claim of justifiable defensive killing. Surprisingly, some of the authors responding to my initial essay in this symposium seem to not understand this point when they claim that all drone strikes fail to give their targets “due process” and are “extra-judicial executions.” This misunderstands the moral reasoning behind the drone strikes – at least so far as it is claimed by the administration. I am not here thereby suggesting that the US drone operations necessarily meet their claimed justification – that’s another matter – but simply that some of the authors for this symposium are not even responding to the justification as it is claimed. Instead they are asserting that US takes itself to have the right to commit “extra-judicial executions,” which is not at all what the US claims for its drone operations. So I must take a moment and review this basic justification for defensive killing.
The first choice for blocking any unjust threat is the least harmful option available (such as capture), but there are times when necessity demands lethal action be taken as the best or only means to thwart the threat. In such cases, the person posing the unjust threat has made herself liable to the defensive harm in question, and her rights are not transgressed. Such killing is thus not violating that person’s due process rights, nor her right to not be harmed unjustly (for she is being harmed justly). In such a scenario, the person’s actions have made her liable to be killed as the only or best means to block her unjust threat. Again, in principle, this kind of moral justification for killing is nothing new. Such a justification is given on a daily basis when law enforcement officers kill a criminal in the act of threating innocents. If the criminal was posing an imminent threat such that he was liable to be harmed to thwart that threat, none of his rights were violated by the cops when they shoot him.
Of course, the very notion that a threat can be justifiably blocked by killing, while sound in principle and sometimes in practice, is ripe for abuse and misuse. So the pressing moral issue for the drone campaign is how the notion of “imminent threat” is being evaluated, measured, and properly understood.
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