Targeted Killing and Drone Warfare

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It is always a hard question whether new technologies require the revision of old arguments. Targeted killing isn’t new, and I am going to repeat an old argument about it. But targeted killing with drones? Here the old arguments, though they still make sense, leave me uneasy.

First things first. Untargeted killing, random killing, the bomb in the supermarket, the café, or the bus station: we call that terrorism, and its condemnation is critically important. No qualifications, no apologies: this is wrongfulness of the first order. But someone who takes aim at a particular person, a political official, a military officer, is engaged in a different activity. He may be a just assassin, as in Camus’s play, though I don’t think that the justice of the killing depends on the killer’s willingness to accept death himself (which is Camus’s argument). It depends on the character of the official or the officer, the character of the regime he serves, and the immediate political circumstances: what else is there to do? But even if the assassination is a wrongful act, as it most often is in history if not in literature, the wrongfulness is of a second order. By aiming at a person thought to be guilty of something, the assassin indicates his rejection of aimless killing. Someone in his organization probably thought that it would be better to kill the official’s extended family or to put a bomb in the restaurant where he and “his kind” regularly dine; he refused to do that or, at least, he didn’t do it.

There are radical limits on political assassinations. In democracies, they can never be justified; it is only the blood of tyrants that waters the tree of liberty. And even with tyrants, a trial is preferable to an assassination whenever it is possible to bring down the tyrannical regime without killing its leader. In wartime, international law bars the killing of political leaders on the grounds that they are the ones who will in the end negotiate the peace treaty. But some political leaders, with whom one can’t imagine negotiating, are legitimate targets—Hitler the obvious example. Killing Hitler would have been “extra-judicial” but entirely justified. Tyrants do have to be targeted, however; blowing up the neighborhood in which they live is not a moral option.

Military leaders are obviously legitimate targets in wartime. A sniper sent to a forward position to try to kill a visiting colonel or general is engaged in targeted killing, but no one will accuse him of acting extra-judicially and therefore wrongly. It is probably best to think of insurgent organizations in roughly the same way that we think about states. If they have separated their political and military leaders, it is only the second group who should be targeted since we may eventually negotiate with the first group. I don’t believe that the same distinction is morally required in the case of terrorist organizations, though it may be prudent to make it. Individuals who plan, or organize, or recruit for, or participate in a terrorist attack are all of them legitimate targets. It would be better to capture them and bring them to trial, but that is often not a reasonable option—the risks are too high; innocent bystanders would be killed in the attempt; the planning would take time, and the terrorist attacks are imminent or actual. In cases like this, the phrase “war on terror” makes sense. More often, I think, the “war” is police work, and targeted killing is not permissible for the police. If the terrorist campaign has ended, only the police can deal with the men and women who organized it—and lawyers and judges after the police.

The targeted killing of insurgents and terrorists in wartime is subject to the same constraints as any other act of war. It will have to meet very strict standards of proportionality; given that the target is a single person, it will be difficult to justify any injury to innocent bystanders. So the targeting must be undertaken with great care; collecting information about the targeted individuals, their schedules, their whereabouts, their families and neighbors, is critically important, and if it involves risk for agents in the field, the risks must be accepted before the killing can be justified.


Now, does it make any difference if the actual killing is the work of a drone, operated by a technician sitting in an office 3,000 miles away? Surely the same criteria apply to the drone as to any more closely manned machine. Why should we think it different from the sniper’s rifle? The difference is that killing-by-drone is so much easier than other forms of targeted killing. The easiness should make us uneasy. This is a dangerously tempting technology. It makes our enemies more vulnerable than ever before, and we can get at them without any risk to our own soldiers. Of course, intelligence gathering may still be risky, but the drones “see” so much more than any soldier or agent in the field that they make fieldwork seem less important. They combine the capacity for surveillance with the capacity for precise attack. At least, that is the idea, and assuming now that we are rightly in the business of killing, that there are people out there who deserve to be killed, what could be better?

But here is the difficulty: the technology is so good that the criteria for using it are likely to be steadily relaxed. That’s what seems to have happened with the U.S. Army or with the CIA in Pakistan and Yemen. The overuse of drones and the costs they impose upon the civilian population have been carefully and persuasively documented in the Stanford/NYU Clinics’ report, Living Under Drones. I will focus on only one striking example of how the moral criteria have been relaxed in order to justify the overuse and the costs. According to an article in the New York Times by Jo Becker and Scott Shane, President Obama has adopted “a disputed method for counting civilian casualties” that makes it much easier to call drone attacks “proportionate.” In effect, it “counts all military age males in a strike zone as combatants.” If the targeted insurgent or terrorist leader is surrounded by, or simply in the vicinity of, a group of men who are, say, between the ages of fifteen and sixty (and even drone surveillance can’t be precise about that), an attack is permitted, and everyone who is killed is counted as a legitimate target. But this isn’t targeted killing.

There are ancient precedents for this sort of thing. According to Thucydides, when the Athenians captured the rebellious city of Melos, they “slew all the men of military age.” And according to the biblical book of Deuteronomy, when the Israelites besieged a city and “God delivers it into your hands…you shall put all its males to the sword.” Since the Deuteronomist goes on to exclude children, the two policies are identical. The new American doctrine isn’t the same. We are not aiming to kill all the men of military age, but we have made them all liable to be killed. We have turned them into combatants, without knowing anything more about them than their (approximate) age. That wasn’t right in ancient Greece or Israel, and it isn‘t right today.

Drone warfare could take the form of targeted killing, and it could be justified under tough constraints. But the United States now seems to be using drones in a different way, as the instrument of a more general and less focused warfare. Drones make it possible to get at enemies who hide in countries whose governments are probably unwilling and possibly unable to repress or restrain them. This is a war without a front, where the use of ground troops, even commandos, is difficult, sometimes impossible—so drones have been called “the only game in town.” But we should think very carefully before relaxing the targeting rules and turning drones into a weapon like all the others. Their moral and political advantage is their precision, which depends on using them only against individuals whose critical importance we have established and about whom we have learned a great deal. Using them like an advanced form of artillery or like “smart” bombs isn’t morally right or politically wise.

This last point can be driven home very simply: imagine a world, which we will soon be living in, where everybody has drones.


Michael Walzer is the co-editor of Dissent.