Is the American government accountable when it kills its own citizens?

I have not had the opportunity to study in any depth the Obama administration’s wide-ranging use of drones to kill terrorists. I am well aware of the longstanding criticisms of the use of drones coming from liberals as eminent as former President Jimmy Carter. I am also mindful that the increasing use of drones for targeted killings may be one unintended consequence of tightening restrictions both on the detention of suspected terrorists and on interrogative techniques bordering on torture. If it is extraordinarily difficult legally and politically to contain your enemies when you capture them, it becomes a whole lot simpler simply to kill them. That doesn’t make it right, but it does suggest that there are no pretty or ideal answers to the hard questions of how to wage a just war such as the War on Terror. “War is hell,” General William T. Sherman purportedly declared. That’s true even when we try to wage it justly.

Today Obama’s nominee as CIA director John O. Brennan will appear before the Senate Intelligence Committee for his confirmation hearing. The use of drones will certainly be discussed. And while most people in this country sensibly recognize that drones – like any other military technology – should be used to full advantage, there is also a healthy respect for the dangers of a kind of war that requires little risk on the part of America’s soldiers, that significantly endangers innocents, and that, most importantly, is potentially subject to massive abuse.

The current issue of controversy is whether or not President Obama – or any of his future successors – are accountable to the American people through their congressional representatives for the use of drones. In particular, can the President order the killing of American citizens involved in international terrorism without any  judicial oversight? I understand the fact that sometimes decisions have to be made without prior judicial or congressional permission. The president is, after all, the commander-in-chief, charged with the defense of this country. But I’m wary of a program that authorizes the government to use lethal force without any accountability for abuse. I don’t think American citizens who join the ranks of terrorists waging war against America retain all of their constitutional rights, but I do find myself agreeing with the New York Times in its criticism of the administration for dragging its feet on the matter of accountability.

The Times writes of the administration’s controversial white paper:

But it takes the position that the only “oversight” needed for such a decision resides within the executive branch, and there is no need to explain the judgment to Congress, the courts or the public — or, indeed, to even acknowledge that the killing took place.

The paper argues that judges and Congress don’t have the right to rule on or interfere with decisions made in the heat of combat. Some officials also draw a parallel to police officers who use violence to protect the innocent. Even in wartime, there are many ways to review commanders’ and soldiers’ decisions, and while courts-martial are internal to the military, their verdicts are subject to appeal to a civilian judge. When a police officer so much as discharges his weapon, it triggers a great deal of review, based on rules that are known to everyone….

Going forward, he should submit decisions like this one to review by Congress and the courts. If necessary, Congress could create a special court to handle this sort of sensitive discussion, like the one it created to review wiretapping. This dispute goes to the fundamental nature of our democracy, to the relationship among the branches of government and to their responsibility to the public.

It also goes to some fundamental principles of just war theory. No one should be allowed to use lethal force without some form of accountability under the law.


About Matthew J. Tuininga

Matthew J. Tuininga is the Assistant Professor of Moral Theology at Calvin Theological Seminary in Grand Rapids, Michigan.

Posted on February 7, 2013, in Barack Obama, Just War, Law and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Comments Off on Is the American government accountable when it kills its own citizens?.

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