Up close and personal — that describes targeting individuals in wartime, even when impersonal drone aircraft and electronics are employed.
On Thursday, the U.S. Senate voted 63-34 to confirm John Brennan to head the CIA, but only after intensive Intelligence Committee debate over use of drone strikes and a filibuster by Republican Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky.
In 2011, the killing in Yemen of al-Qaida leader Anwar al-Awlaki, his young son Abdulrahman and associate Samir Khan by U.S. drones sparked controversy. They were American citizens, and critics argue they were denied essential due process.
On these grounds, such critics are wrong. Our common-law tradition assumes that all people have basic human rights. American citizens here do not have special rights.
That principle led to defeats of the Bush administration by a largely conservative U.S. Supreme Court, which struck down the fallacious argument that accused terrorists held at Guantanamo had no rights because they were neither civilians nor uniformed military. The court decreed some form of orderly due process is essential, and the Bush White House complied, albeit grudgingly.
Beyond this point, war is uncivilized and unfit for customary civilian due process, though our country has been a leader in developing rules limiting armed conflict. Particularly notable is President Abraham Lincoln’s efforts during the Civil War, in collaboration with professor Francis Lieber of Columbia Law School in New York.
Targeting individuals in war can be defensible. Early in World War II, a special U.S. intelligence force was given the mission of locating and killing Adm. Isoroku Yamamoto, brilliant architect of the Pearl Harbor attack. In early 1943, he was confirmed flying near New Guinea, a special squadron of fighter planes was dispatched and his aircraft shot down.
During the initial part of the war, the British had a program to assassinate Adolf Hitler. Later, British and American planners abandoned the effort, not for any reasons of morality, but because Hitler’s mental deterioration was judged so serious that he was probably more useful to the Allied effort alive than dead.