Remote Controled Assassination

Armed Predator drone firing Hellfire missile

Image via Wikipedia

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).

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  1. s. wallerstein (amos)

    Very good post!!!

    First of all, there aren’t any eternal ethical laws about what is right in war and what is not.

    So what people did in World War 2 is an interesting precedent, but does not govern my conduct today.

    I try to win a war but within certain ethical limits as to techniques, civilian casualties, use of weapons of mass destruction, etc, among other reasons, to maintain my country’s honor and good name (I don’t want people to see us as a rogue state or as a terrorist state).

    Second, the need to limit civilian casualties and atrocities also obeys the fact that people who feel that they have been stepped on or that their families have been massacred or destroyed tend to revenge themselves.

    Therefore, the fact that the drones kills ten times more civilians than suspected terrorists is a very pertinent fact, because that may mean that for every dead suspected terrorist, there are ten family members who swear revenge.

    I say “suspected” because no one has been proved guilty here by any court, before they are executed.

    That brings me to your last paragraph about robotic chickens coming home to roost.

    It seems weird that the U.S., which was the object of one horrible terrorist attack, 9-11, carried out by simple, low-tech means, is provoking more hatred in cultures like that of Pakistan, a culture of family honor and where the need to avenge family honor is valued.

    Among terrorists there may be some with such a level of psychopathic hatred that they seek any pretext to kill “us good freedom-loving people”
    (they hate us because we’re free, said a great political theorist), but the psychopathic master minds need infantry, that is, they need recruits who, urged on by a sense of a wrong done to their families, to their culture, or to their religion, are willing to commit terrorist atrocities.

    They started it, say many.


    I’m not sure who started it, but the point is to end the spiral of violence and hatred and I doubt that killing ten civilians for every suspected terrorist will end that spiral of violence.

  2. s. wallerstein (amos)

    email follow-up

  3. Dennis Sceviour

    “American intelligence services are shooting Hellfire missiles at people (including American citizens)” seems like a provocative statement requiring further clarification. What is the source of information? Are the American citizens on North American soil? There is a suggestion here of a civil dispute, or what could lead to a civil war. Of concern is the 10:1 ratio of causalities claimed. If so, then why not 100, 1000, or 10,000,000 innocents to assassinate a suspected malcontent. Is there a concern that the faculty of FSU is in danger of being wiped out by an ROV because there might be a suspect hiding somewhere on campus?

    Also of concern is the claim that “American intelligence services” have possession of weapons of mass destruction. For example, the official program of the CIA was to collect information for the political ladder. Who is in charge here?

  4. ‘American intelligence services are shooting Hellfire missiles at people (including American citizens)” seems like a provocative statement requiring further clarification. What is the source of information?’

    This is fairly common knowledge Dennis, reported widely in the press and freely admitted by the White House. Militants with American citizenship, like Anwar al-Awlaki, have been put on the ‘kill or capture’ list (there’s not too much emphasis on the ‘capture’ bit) and he was killed by drone strike in September last year. Try Google.

    Obviously targeted killing does not occur on US soil no.

  5. Re: posted by Jim P Houston, January 16, 2012 at 10:10 pm
    “Obviously targeted killing does not occur on US soil no.”

    Thank you for pointing out the Anwar al-Awlaki incident. It was not common knowledge to me. The Anwar al-Awlaki assassination is one situation conducted by the Joint Special Operations Command according to Google, and it was not on American soil. However, political assassinations are more common in America than you pre-suppose; witness the recent Gabby Giffords targeted killing attempt.

  6. Hi Dennis,

    Political assassinations outside US territory were authorised by US presidents before Ford took office in the mid-70s (e.g. the CIA made numerous attempts to kill Castro). Ford issued a presidential decree forbidding US personnel from engaging in ‘political assassination’, later presidents re-iterated the ban but dropped the term ‘political’ and also officially forbade US personnel from getting others to do their ‘dirty work’ for them. Thus the US govt will never describe any killing authorised by the President as an ‘assassination’ and terms such as ‘targeted killing’ and ‘extra-judicial killing’ are used instead (all such killings are directly authorised by the President as I understand it).

    If we are talking about ‘political assassinations’ within the USA we are not talking of ‘targeted killing’ – that is we are not talking about killings officially authorised by the State in the name of fighting a war.

  7. I think the fact drones are being used is a red herring.

    The main issue is that we are willing to accept innocent civilians’ deaths (collateral damage) in order to murder a suspected or potential criminal.

    Every part of that sentence should cause legal and ethical problems.

    The over-reaction to 9/11 has been terrifying. If only a fraction of the cost of the ‘war on terror’ had been used to improve road and car safety a multiple of those lives lost on 9/11 would have been saved and we’d still have our freedoms. But no, the fear of a couple of hundred people dying in a plane every year or so means we have allowed over 5,000 US soldiers to die, innumerable Iraqis and Afghans, thousands of US citizens to die from mis-allocated resources, slower growth, lower public spending etc. etc. all topped off with the lovely cherry of losing our freedoms and not actually being any safer.

  8. “morally tolerable”

    Basically, acts we consider immoral might at times be considered less immoral that the default position for those acts. This is the morality of morality. How far, morally speaking, is it moral to stretch your morals under various conditions.

    We can all sign up to moral codes in principle, but that doesn’t mean we will always live by them, or even that we think we should.

    Ethics is one of those human problems made all the more messy by philosophers conjuring up hypothetical stuff like the Trolley Problem.

    I recently ran the test over at “The Philosopher’s Magazine” site, and ended up with a score of 50% (higher is supposed to be better) because I said torture is always morally wrong, which I still think is the case, and yet agreed to torture a saboteur known to be 100% guilty of planting a nuclear weapon on the understanding that the torture would be effective (thought experiments can be pretty lame). But I saw no ultimate inconsistency in the inconsistency of my moral principle and my willingness to stick top it in all circumstances.

  9. Interesting topic!

    I found it interesting that you described the argument drone killings kill more “bad guys” at the cost of less “good guys” and “innocent folks” as utilitarian. Does utilitarianism typically distinguish between innocents and “bad guys”? Granted I’m only really familiar with Mill’s version, but I’d think that pain is pain. Of course you could say killing bad folks avoided future pain, but that’s a slightly different point. Many people are okay with killing a terrorist because he’s a terrorist and therefore not worthy of moral consideration.

    I also am not sure I accept your argument that 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. What do we mean by “legitimate combatants”? Would we include someone who had been drafted? (In many countries, military service is legally compulsory; in others there is psychological or financial pressure brought to bear on certain portions of society.) Also, there are many schools of ethical thought – I’m thinking of Kant here – who say there are certain things you can’t consent to rationally. This line of argument may be defensible, but I think it requires more defense than it’s given here.

  10. 1/. The rules of war are made by the winners. Naturally their actions are fully justified …

    2/. Never mind one hellfire missile that kills ten civilians. Look forward to the entirely feasible scenario where nameless microbots keyed to personal DNA are able to take out just one individual.

    3/. Since when do law makers obey laws anyway?

    The reality is it’s here, and it will be used because it can be used.

    With luck this will reduce war to the medieval level. No longer will it be the average peasants concern

    ‘Ar lookee thar, two knights a going at each other but at least its not us, and still no bread for tomorrer’.

    Its rather amusing to consider what a world might be like if anyone anywhere could, given a hair fro someones head. feed it to a machine that would generate 100 killer microbots, and kill that person with virtually no real chance of being apprehended.

    I have always felt that the principles of courtesy arose from a (subsection of) society in which everyone wore a sword and there was little beyond that in terms of Law. Not playing nice meant not playing ever again.

    Perhaps we can look forward to such a society in the future, when invisible ling distance murder is available at the swipe of a credit card.

    It should ginger up politics and the ‘X-factor’ a bit too.

  11. s.wallerstein,

    Good point-killing people in Afghanistan and Pakistan might eliminate some leaders, but it also generates a considerable amount of hate. This could, as you note, serve to have the effect of increasing attacks against Americans rather than decreasing them. It is interesting to note that the United States tried to kill its way to victory in Vietnam (body counts and all that) and that strategy did not work very well. Now we are trying to avoid large body counts, but trying to kill leaders and important targets. This might work-provided that it eliminates the leadership without creating more leaders and more followers.

    I suspect that the people who hate us do not hate our freedom, but rather our foreign policy.

  12. Dennis,

    We are employing drones for internal surveillance, so it is probably just a matter of time before these drones are armed for border security and police work. Eventually a police or border patrol drone will be used to shoot a suspect on US soil.

  13. Marta,

    Good point. I’d say that a utilitarian could avail themselves of Mill’s comments about the love of virtue being preferable to the love of fame or money. So, a person who follows a path of terror would tend to create more unhappiness in his/her life and hence killing such a person would tend (on balance) prevent more pain than the killing created. Also, people would tend to feel more emotional dismay over the killing of innocents than bad guys. So, there would be those two justifications: 1) killing bad guys prevents more pain and 2) it hurts people more when innocents dies.

    Someone like Kant would probably make the same argument you presented, namely that one who lacks the good will is not worthy of happiness.

    Sorting out legitimate combatants is a tricky thing in regards to the more fuzzy cases. Soldiers who are volunteers and follow the rules of war would seem to clearly be legitimate combatants. Those who are drafted and forced to fight could thus be seen as victims, although enemy soldiers would seem to still have the moral right to defend themselves against the attacks of such unwilling conscripts. Civilians that just happen to work in a munition factory or who pay taxes that go to the war effort…well, that would seem to start going a bit too far. Then again, it could be argued that everyone who has any role in a war (even paying taxes or collecting scrap) would be a legitimate target-in this case we could kill almost anyone.

  14. ‘Eventually a police or border patrol drone will be used to shoot a suspect on US soil.’

    Good point. But hopefully they won’t start firing rockets at cars and buildings just because they suspect a criminal or illegal immigrant may be in it and they don’t much care who else is.

  15. Jim,

    Lawyers would have a field day in such collateral damage cases, so copbots will probably be used in a more restrained manner. However, that might change-after all, Americans suspected of being terrorist can now be indefinitely detained (Obama said he wouldn’t do it, of course) and perhaps the next step might be to legalize the use of such force if the targets in the US are suspected of being terrorists.

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