Beyond Tactics: The Moral Case Against U.S. Drone Assassinations

This is an edited version of a post that first appeared in this blog in November, 2011. I am reposting it to add my voice to the growing and urgent debate taking place surrounding the use of drone aircraft by agencies of the US government.

I would like to lay out for you five reasons that we should not be continuing the U.S. drone assassination program. In reverse order of Lawrence Kohlberg’s Moral Development Theory, I have listed the points starting with universal moral principles that transcend human law and ending with strictly legal reasoning. From listening to discussions on the news about war over the years, I have come to realize that most people do not consider values-based arguments when deciding whether state violence is an appropriate course of action. Nor are legal considerations generally taken seriously in matters of war and peace. Practical and tactical considerations, which reflect Level Two of Kohlberg’s moral development schema, are almost universally aired in place of thinking about laws or thinking in terms of right and wrong. If, like me, you consider broad principles of right and wrong to be of the utmost value, then you should read the following points from top to bottom. If, however, you consider practical, concrete, and immediate points to be more salient, you should read the list from bottom to top.

The five main points of this article:

  1. It is wrong to kill people. More specifically, it is wrong for the State to kill people. This argument does not hold much sway for most people in the United States. After all, this is a country in which a majority of the adult population support the death penalty. Perhaps some of those people, however, might make a distinction between judicial and extra-judicial executions.
  2. The image of the most powerful nation on Earth hiring someone in an Ohio office to press some buttons in order to assassinate people around the planet by remote control, thus avoiding any risk to its own people, is rightfully seen as cowardly.
  3. Drone attacks inexorably kill people other than the intended targets. Estimates of how many civilian men, women and children have been killed vary widely, but the practice has aroused huge resentment in much of the world. This has greatly exasperated our failure to win hearts and minds in regions of the world where we are fighting wars of ideology.
  4. Inevitably, other countries will follow our lead and develop and use drone technology. Every time we send a drone around the planet to assassinate a perceived enemy, we are saying that the state is justified in doing so. Stop for a minute to see the future we are creating, when, say, Pakistan deems it necessary to drop a bomb on an apartment complex in Chicago where they have “actionable intelligence” that an anti-Pakistan terrorist is hiding out.
  5. Drone assassinations are illegal. 200 years after our nation was founded, we in the United States decided that we wanted to live in a civilized nation that did not engage in assassinations. So, in 1976, President Ford outlawed assassinations: “No employee of the United States Government shall engage in, or conspire to engage in, political assassination.”
It is my assertion, therefore, that the policy of killing people around the world by remote control is dangerous and immoral. It is dangerous because it invites retaliation, blurs the law, and presents us with a vision of a state using its technology to kill anyone anywhere for whatever reason it sees fit. It is immoral because it devalues life and uses evil means to attempt to reach just ends.
I would like to close with two quotes from Martin Luther King, Jr.:
Cowardice asks the question – is it safe?
Expediency asks the question – is it politic?
Vanity asks the question – is it popular?
But conscience asks the question – is it right?
And there comes a time when one must take a position
that is neither safe, nor politic, nor popular;
but one must take it because it is right.
Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
The ultimate weakness of violence is that it is a descending spiral,
begetting the very thing it seeks to destroy.
Instead of diminishing evil, it multiplies it.
Through violence you may murder the liar,
but you cannot murder the lie, nor establish the truth.
Through violence you may murder the hater,
but you do not murder hate.
In fact, violence merely increases hate.
So it goes.
Returning violence for violence multiplies violence,
adding deeper darkness to a night already devoid of stars.
Darkness cannot drive out darkness:
only light can do that.
Hate cannot drive out hate: only love can do that.
Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

To see why I don’t care about an Iranian nuclear weapons, click the flower:


3 Responses to Beyond Tactics: The Moral Case Against U.S. Drone Assassinations

  1. Ramsay says:

    This is very good, Eric, as is your blog on the putative Iranian bomb. The US loses ever more credibility and influence in the world as it engages in the very acts that it seeks to suppress among others. This of course begs the question for me of whether a dminished US global presence/influence is a good thing or a bad thing. Given its rogue exceptionalism and it support for rogue regimes everywhere (and its continued attempts to undermine democratic governments who happen to be leftist), not to mention economic neo-colonialism, I’d say the more diminished the US becomes, the better. Then again, we exert a stabilizing influence, after a fashion, and we do still hold up the beacon, however tarnished, of ideals of freedom and democracy. What do you thin


    • EricIndiana says:

      I think all those things. It’s frustrating because that beacon is based on a moral clarity that’s mostly theoretical. But at least countries like the US are to some degree swayed by public opinion. So it may have been Reagan’s inclination to fully support Apartheid South Africa, but the overwhelming public opinion against Apartheid at least moderated US policy.

      I just always keep in mind that countries are made up of people and there are no people who are more “good” than any other people. so as soon as any country has power it does what it can to hold on & increase it.

      There’s an argument to be made that had the Cold War endured, the US would now be negotiating with the Soviet Union to ban or curtail drone military aircraft. At the moment, our government feels pretty unencumbered.


      • Ramsay says:

        Your second paragraph touches on a topic that has always intrigued the former anthropology student in me. I think it’s perhaps a bit glib to say “people are all the same”. Cultural values are very different, and cultural values play a huge part, probably the dominant part, in the creation of the human. So Iceland, with its progressive values, does, I would argue, produce better people, on the whole, than, say, the U.S., with a value set that includes hyper-individualism, militarism, gun-fetishism, primitive religiosity, consumerism. Evidence? Look at voting patterns. Or check out a “Black Friday at Walmart” video on Youtube.


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