Why we should be upset by the administration’s drone strike “kill list”

We’ve all been hearing talk about health care, the economy, same-sex marriage, and other domestic concerns as the 2012 election draws closer. What there hasn’t been as much discussion of is foreign policy, which may change in light of recent media exposure about the existence of a “kill list” used by the administration in counterterrorism efforts around the globe.

Earlier this week The New York Times presented thorough coverage of the administration’s policies and decision making used to determine the targets of drone strikes around the world, particularly in Pakistan and Yemen. Drones, which supposedly have the advantage of limiting danger for their operators, since the vehicles are piloted either by computers or by persons in remote locations, have already caused controversy for their potential of creating collateral damage. When an American man, Anwar al-Awlaki, was killed in a targeted drone strike in September, questions arose over the legality of the attack and the benefits to the secrecy surrounding the U.S.’s drone program.

The Times article describes the unsettling process of how the “kill list” is formed: “Every week or so, more than 100 members of the government’s sprawling national security apparatus gather, by secure video teleconference, to pore over terrorist suspects’ biographies and recommend to the president who should be the next to die. The nominations go to the White House, where by his own insistence and guided by Mr. Brennan, Mr. Obama must approve any name.”

Even more troubling than this conference to determine deaths (said William Daley, Obama's 2011 Chief of Staff: "One guy gets knocked off, and the guy’s driver, who’s No. 21, becomes 20? At what point are you just filling the bucket with numbers?”) is that the drone strikes continue despite the knowledge that innocent civilians are more than likely being killed in the attacks.

According to the Times, all military-age men in a strike zone are counted as “combatants” unless intelligence surfaces posthumously that proves they were innocent. Said one anonymous official: “It bothers me when they say there were seven guys, so they must all be militants. They count the corpses and they’re not really sure who they are.” This knowledge seems to discredit (or at least provide new perspective on) Obama’s claims, such as this one made in January, that there have been very few civilian casualties from drone strikes.

Though the Times explores some of Obama’s personal motivations and principles surrounding the issue, including a mention of the president’s study of Thomas Aquinas' and Augstine’s writings on warfare, the person signing off on these targeted killings is the same man who in 2009 won the Nobel Peace Prize for “his extraordinary efforts to strengthen international diplomacy and cooperation between peoples.”

Can that be said of his policy on drone strikes? Some have questioned if the president is just using drone strikes for political gain to counter any musings that he is “soft on terrorism.” (This sentiment hearkens back to the days of McCarthyism when being “soft on communism” was a label that no politician wanted.) President Obama certainly doesn’t want to appear to be taking America’s security lightly, even though there is debate about if the program is increasing our safety or actually making things worse.

I have another question: Why isn’t this issue at the focus of our national consciousness (and consciences), especially the Catholic Church's? To me this is a pretty clear case where there is a high probability (and the actual occurrence) of innocent lives being lost. This is the kind of moral issue that the church should be speaking out about.

We are taught to value life, and yet we can so easily ignore or even justify policies such as this that directly result in the loss of life. Let's not forget either that as a church, we also value the inherent dignity present in each and every person–even if they are an enemy combatant or an innocent civilian in a far away country.

About the author

Elizabeth Lefebvre

Elizabeth Lefebvre is a writer living in Chicago.