The Moral Evasions of a Hawk: A Response to Charles Krauthammer's Latest

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Marvel at what's missing from his casual appraisal of President Obama's drone policy.

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Says Charles Krauthammer, commenting on the recent New York Times article that detailed President Obama's role assembling America's global kill list (emphasis added):

A rather strange ethics. You go around the world preening about how America has turned a new moral page by electing a president profoundly offended by George W. Bush's belligerence and prisoner maltreatment, and now you're ostentatiously telling the world that you personally play judge, jury, and executioner to unseen combatants of your choosing, and whatever innocents happen to be in their company.

This is not to argue against drone attacks. In principle, they are fully justified. No quarter need be given to terrorists* who wear civilian clothes, hide among civilians, and target civilians indiscriminately. But it is to question the moral amnesia of those who were offended by the Bush methods that kept America -- and who now embrace Obama's campaign of assassination by remote control.

What kind of moral argument is that? The column is phrased as if the question America confronts is, "Must we give quarter to terrorists or not?" To which the answer is obvious: "They're terrorists! Of course we need give them no quarter." Therefore killer drones are justified!

With reasoning like that it's no wonder he's such a hawk. 

The problem with his casual defense of drones is that it elides all of the actual moral questions with which drone enthusiasts seldom grapple. The biggest of them all: Are drone attacks justified even though they frequently kill innocents, including women and children? Krauthammer thinks so. After all, he favors drone attacks, even knowing their track record of "collateral damage," as he'd probably put it. That he writes around the reason these attacks are so controversial, even as he purports to offer a moral justification for them, suggests that he's less comfortable defending the full implications of the policy - that is, the dead children - than he lets on.

He isn't alone.

It would be nice if he addressed some of the following questions. Are the specific drone attacks we're launching justified even though the CIA regularly targets people whose identities it doesn't even know? Are they justified even though all males of military age we kill are just presumed to be "militants"? Are they justified even when covertly prosecuted in sovereign countries? If a drone attack reduced the chance that the average American will die in a terrorist attack by .01 percent, but had a 10 percent chance of killing an innocent Pakistani child, would it be justified?

Finally, are other countries justified in using drones? For example, if a man suspected of terrorism by the Chinese government was on the streets of Paris, would they be justified in killing him by drone, even if there was a risk of killing a seven year old French girl in the process?

Those are the sorts of questions to confront. Whatever answers one reaches, the pretense that "no quarter need be given terrorists*" is a line sufficient to justify drone attacks is surely absurd.

It obscures every actual morally controversial question at issue.

*"Terrorist" is the word Krauthammer uses for "person suspected by the government of terrorism based on a secret, inconsistent standard of evidence that has proven frequently inaccurate in the past."

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Conor Friedersdorf is a staff writer at The Atlantic, where he focuses on politics and national affairs. He lives in Venice, California, and is the founding editor of The Best of Journalism, a newsletter devoted to exceptional nonfiction.

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