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Michael Kinsley: Need to explain policy, legality of drone strikes

  • Bloomberg News
  • Published Sunday, Jan. 13, 2013, at 12 a.m.

Wars used to be conducted on battlefields, between soldiers in uniforms lined up in rows, bayonets ready. But in wars since there has been a blurring of the distinction between soldiers and noncombatants.

The war on terrorism’s contribution has been the drone: an unmanned plane that can aim at and hit a target with enormous precision. And, as with earlier developments, we’re getting used to it. The eye passes right over headlines such as “Yemen: Drone strike kills 2” buried inside the newspaper.

The advantages of using drones are obvious. No American lives are put at risk, and the precision minimizes collateral damage, including the deaths of innocents who happen to be nearby.

The disadvantages follow from advantages. When a military option seems less painful, it is more likely to be resorted to. The ability to strike at the enemy with absolutely zero risk to your own people must be especially appealing to politicians such as President Obama, for whom the decision to put Americans in harm’s way is surely the toughest one to make.

But drones also highlight a terrible anomaly of civil-libertarian societies: the contrast between how we treat killing – state-sponsored killing – in battle, and how we treat killing in civilian life.

There are no Miranda warnings in the trenches. In fact, the entire edifice of protections against convicting the innocent is irrelevant in battle. You kill the other guy because he’s trying to kill you. Collateral damage – including the deaths of complete innocents – comes with the territory.

Once upon a time, these two spheres were separate, with one set of rules – if that – for the battlefield, and one for normal times and places. Now every place is the battlefield. The World Trade Center, for example.

The Obama administration’s position is that it has looked at this carefully, and there’s no legal problem with drone assassinations for reasons that regrettably must remain secret. U.S. District Judge Colleen McMahon’s wonderfully acerbic recent decision reluctantly acknowledges the administration’s right to maintain this absurd position.

A “thicket of laws and precedents,” she wrote, “effectively allow the executive branch of our government to proclaim as perfectly lawful certain actions that seem on their face incompatible with our Constitution and laws, while keeping the reasons for their conclusions a secret.”

But the public deserves a better explanation than “because we said so.”

I wonder especially about the two killed just before New Year’s Eve because, according to Reuters, they were “suspected of being insurgents linked to al-Qaida.” Is that good enough for you?

Michael Kinsley is a Bloomberg View columnist.

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