November 2009
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Ethics and the War on Terror

by Thomas G. Vincent

Interested readers are invited to check out Tom's blog "Single Doubt"

Ethics quiz:

Suppose there is a militant leader in a foreign country. He has stated publicly he wishes to kill Americans; he has guns and ammo and a ready supply of rabid followers; no doubt about it, he’s a bad guy. Imagine further, the C.I.A. knows where and when this man is going to be at a given location. Say they can put a sharpshooter in place, and assassinate him upon your order.

Would you do it? Would you give the order to execute a man merely because he had stated a desire to kill American citizens? Would you consider it moral or ethical to execute someone merely because of something they would like to do?

I suspect that there are many in America who wouldn’t agonize too long over this type of decision. For the plethora of second amendment supporters out there the merest hint of danger would probably be enough for them to justify giving a sniper with a Bushmaster a green light to blow the guy’s head into a fine pink mist. Let the other poor bastard die for his country and all that. All’s fair in love and horseshoes.

Okay, now let’s back it up a tick:

Suppose you know the location where the man will be and even when he he’s going to be there. However, the only means of assassination at your disposal is to lob a grenade through the window. Would you do it then? If the attempt would almost certainly kill more people than just the man you are gunning for would it still be moral and ethical to go ahead? If you say yes to this one – and I mean no disrespect here – how many bystanders would you be willing to kill before your ethics and morality meter started to quiver?

Okay, now for the kicker:

Suppose you are only “pretty sure” this man will be in the house where and when you think he’ll be there. Suppose further the house is located in between an elementary school and a wedding chapel and oh, by the way, your only means of attacking him is with a missile fired from an unmanned drone circling high overhead, commanded by a pilot who is half a world away? Does this do anything at all to the needle on your moral compass?

This last one of course is a more or less exact description of where we find ourselves in the “war on terror.” In a curious bit of irony, C.I.A. director Leon Panetta went before Congress recently and related how he had dismantled a program set up by the Bush administration that was to have C.I.A. operatives identify and assassinate Al Qaeda leaders on the ground. At the same time Panetta gave his wholehearted support for a program of assassination using Hellfire missiles launched from Predator and Reaper drones flying at 20,000 feet that is virtually certain to kill way more innocent people than a sniper’s bullet ever could.

From a legal standpoint, the decision to dismantle the C.I.A. assassination program is understandable. It can be argued that targeted killing, such as that put forward for Al Qaeda terrorists, is prohibited by presidential orders that date back to the Ford administration. Presidentially ordered assassinations are, by definition, unethical and immoral. However, the decision to go with the drone assassination program instead places the Whitehouse on even shakier ethical ground. Though there is disagreement as to the amount of civilian casualties that have resulted from drone attacks – much of which stems from the CIAs own secrecy surrounding the program – no less an authority than advisor and strategist David Kilcullen admitted in an interview with the Financial Times in May that with regard to the whole drone program:

US drone strikes in the Pakistani tribal areas aimed at hitting al-Qaeda and Taliban figures were counter-productive. "They have an undeniable benefit, because we have disrupted AQ operations and damaged AQ cells in Pakistan. But they have a negative strategic effect in that they incite Punjabi militancy, which is the biggest problem in Pakistani right now." Mr Kilcullen said the hit rate on drone attacks was "unacceptably low". He (Kilcullen) said the US had killed 14 mid-level or lower level al-Qaeda leaders since 2006 but the strikes had killed 700 civilians.

"That's a hit rate of two per cent on 98 per cent collateral. It's not moral." "1"

By any measure, making the linchpin of your war strategy one in which you create 98% collateral damage is beyond justification. Any domestic police force that wiped out 700 innocents in order to target 14 bad guys would itself be labeled criminal.

It strikes me that the dilemma in which we find ourselves in the Middle East is made much more intractable because the powers that be are totally dysfunctional about the morality, the legality and even the efficacy of the strategy and tactics they’re willing to use to fight the so called “War on Terror.” Eschewing torture then giving prisoners defacto life sentences with no charges, no defense and no trial is dysfunctional. Axing a targeted assassination program, saying America is not going down that road is a fine moral stance. But to then employ a remote weapon that kills 98 innocent civilians for every one terrorist leader is just plain nuts!

Can there be such a thing as an ethical war against a group such as Al Qaeda? Is there a moral way of battling an insurgency such as the Taliban? Can we ever defeat terrorism?


But in my opinion victory will never be accomplished with an armed occupation force. Terrorism is, by definition, immoral. However, assassinations - whether they occur by sniper or drone strikes - are also immoral. There is no way of defeating immorality with more immorality. Only by removing our troops from foreign countries; only by engaging in moral and ethical activities like helping the local people build schools, roads, and bridges; only by improving the lives of ordinary Afghan and Pakistani citizens, giving them jobs and access to healthcare; only then will we see peace in the middle east.

We could do this. We could change direction. However, it is frankly impossible to achieve a just and moral outcome while paying $400 a gallon for gas to move our army around in a country like Afghanistan where the yearly per capita gross domestic product is only $429! I know. It’s a radical notion for our army to accept, that their very presence in a country might actually be part of that country’s problem. It will take will to change. But it can be done. After all, as Martin Luther King said about another intractable conflict:

“If we do not act, we shall surely be dragged down the long, dark, and shameful corridors of time reserved for those who posses power without compassion, might without morality, and strength without sight.”