The morality of drone attacks against American citizens

Photo: Associated Press

CALIFORNIA February 10, 2013 — One way to lose freedoms is to be distracted by many simultaneous crises. With sequestration, taxes, gun control, women in combat, Benghazi, and confirmation of controversial cabinet appointees all in play, drone strikes in foreign lands sounds almost routine.

But killing American citizens with drones should never be routine.

A recent Department of Justice white paper outlines the legal rationale supporting lethal force against U.S. citizens overseas that are senior operational leaders of al-Qaida, or an associated force. As we wade through due process complexities, war legalities, terminology, and relativistic moral arguments, we should keep a few founding justice principles in mind. 

For United States citizens to take up arms with America’s enemies to kill other Americans is reprehensible and criminal. They’ve rejected any allegiance to our nation and despise the benefits and duties of citizenship. Our Constitution identifies such individuals as traitors subject to capital punishment (Article III Section 3). The conundrum is which, if any, due process rights apply to these traitors under Amendments IV, V, VI and XIV to our Constitution? 

The bedrock of our nation’s justice system is that a person is presumed innocent until proven guilty. The Bible articulates this principle well by stating an allegation will seem right until it’s credibly challenged (Proverbs 18:17). Not surprisingly, for crimes deserving death (such as treason), both scripture and our Constitution agree: Several credible witnesses are required for a conviction (Numbers 35:30; compare U.S. Constitution Article III, Section 3). 

If evidence is available that unambiguously proves a citizen is committing treasonous acts overseas, should there not be an indictment and prosecution, in absentia if necessary, before lethal force is used? If the evidence is dependent upon foreign intelligence sources that may have ulterior motives, then impartial judicial review would help ensure justice for all concerned. Don’t forget, even our nation’s vast intelligence agencies were incapable of accurately assessing Iraq’s WMD capabilities or Saddam Hussein’s intentions. Can we be so sure mistakes won’t be made against our citizens overseas?

Using a drone to kill an American on foreign soil doesn’t end the matter. Even when our forces take extreme care to minimize collateral damage, family (including young children), friends, and innocent workers may also be killed. What of their lives? Do the consequences of one person’s sins justifiably apply to everyone in close proximity when they’re killed? (Deuteronomy 24:16). What happens to the rights of those individuals, particularly if forced to become human shields? 

There’s another cause for concern – fluid terminology. The White Paper asserts the targeted individual must be an imminent threat, yet “imminent” doesn’t require clear evidence of any planned attack. Also, an “informed, high level official of the U.S. government” can decide the threat is imminent, that capture is infeasible, and that the citizen is a high ranking operative with “associated forces” (i.e., not limited just to al-Qaida or even “co-belligerents”). Who this decision maker is, and the broadness of interpreting involvement in terrorism is problematic at best and potentially carte blanche for unwarranted killing at worst. 

“Just War” theory supports pre-emptive attacks when an enemy is clearly planning to do us harm. Because terrorists with WMD can cause massive death, early and decisive pre-emption is imperative. If lethal drone attacks are required before an indictment and prosecution can occur, then the government must be required to publicly justify its action afterwards. This open accountability is crucial, since it keeps government responsible in the use of the power entrusted to it by the very citizens being protected. 

Because our rights are precious, the application of the rule of law must not become confused. Unfortunately, the current Administration believes Constitutional protections apply to foreign terrorists (Guantanamo Bay detainees), yet hides details of decisions to kill allegedly traitorous citizens abroad. 

If this confusion continues, what confidence do we have that Executive war powers won’t create special conditions concerning citizens within our own borders, particularly towards those who have a healthy distrust of our government?  


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Frank Kacer

Frank Kacer has been writing and lecturing on the applications of a Biblical worldview to the contemporary issues of the day since the mid 1990s. Besides his regular Biblical Politics column with the Washington Times Communities, Frank has authored over 100 op-ed columns for Good News Etc. and the popular Christian Examiner. Frank can be reached at


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