Today’s news of the killing of US citizen Anwar al-Awlaki by US drones sparked a much overdue flurry of criticism and questions on the ethics and legality of Obama’s death-by-drone programme in the war on terror. Awlaki, al-Qaeda’s alleged ‘chief of external operations’ in Yemen (an upgraded title he received posthumously by officials at the White House and the CIA – previously he was by reputation and status merely a radical Muslim cleric) is the first US citizen to have been assassinated in President Obama’s brand of the fight against terrorism. The drones programme is by no means a recent tool in the American war chest, nor has it been particularly reserved in its remit of eliminating specified targets in this interminable ‘war’ effort. What is new, however, is that the US has today eliminated one of it’s own citizens, without due process, stripping said citizen of his 5th Amendment rights and rendering him nothing if not unworthy of living. The fact that a public outcry against the extra-judicial assassination of a human being becomes audible (aside from the controversial killing of enemy #1 Bin Laden of course) only when a US citizen is concerned starkly highlights the normalised extra-judicial status of all foreign drone targets in the perception of the international public. The gloves that came off during the Bush administration are still off and killing as the new justice is beginning to supersede the norm against assassinations.
The norm against political assassinations has been in serious peril since the Bush administration first overtly conceded the strategic use of target killings, framed as a military act to weed out and eliminate high-level Al-Qaeda members, in 2002. This norm continues to deteriorate with Obama at the helm, who has stepped up the drones programme considerably since he took over from Bush junior in 2008. Today, there are roughly double the number of drone attacks per week in regions deemed terrorist hotbeds, specifically Pakistan. Since 2004, these drone strikes are reported to have killed between 1,579 and 2,490 individuals, whereby some analyses estimate the civilian casualty rate among these statistics to be as high as 20%. The vast majority of these deaths have occurred in 2010. While the policy originated as a programme to “capture and kill” a small number of high value terrorist leaders in the G.W. Bush years, the programme has expanded its remit considerably: up to 2,000 killings can hardly be described as a small number, no less if we accept that the total number of military leaders killed was a mere 35 since 2004.
Leaving aside the sovereignty issue that glaringly stares us in the face in a situation where the US decides to engage militarily within a non-war party, such as Pakistan or Yemen, this is a highly concerning development, as it represents not only the gradual erosion of the norm against assassinations but also the very acceptance of the ethics of the targeted killing of persons on a growing scale. There can be little doubt at this stage that the focused elimination, the killing of precarious individuals, has become a legitimated tool in the US security strategy. This marks a significant shift from the days when discussions among the Allies about assassinating Hitler in the height of WWII were considered, in fact, “unsportsmanlike”, as Ward Thomas highlights in his insightful book on the Ethics of Destruction. Where the norm against assassinations as an instrument of foreign policy or political security remained an effective obstacle to assassinations as recent as during the first Bush administration, we have now entered a new era in which it has apparently not only become legitimate to deal with an enemy by eliminating him or her, but, not least since the killing of Osama bin Laden, this has become a new way of doing justice.
The outpouring of elation over a sense of justice at Bin Laden’s killing at the hand of US special forces, and the merchandise (aside from countless t-shirts that range in their display from mild mannered to vulgar, there is a comic book in the making on the raid that killed Bin Laden, to be published later this year) and heroic narrative that is created in the wake of this particularly historic act undoubtedly fuels the wearing away of an old norm in favour of a new one. Long forgotten are the tedious and pesky voices that remind us that killing, without being given the opportunity of a fair trial and due process, is neither just nor justice in a national and international realm that prides itself to be the guardian of the rule of law. Enter the prevalence of an understanding of justice that favours the swift efficiency of death over the costly complications of a trial of high value targets. The ethical abyss that opens here is enormous.
In 2008, then-Senator Obama, in an impressive election speech vowed to re-instate the US as a legal society that had so shamelessly been eroded under the second Bush administration – his promise seems to have been somewhat premature. Obama’s stalwart exclamation that justice had been done in the wake of Bin Laden’s killing and the administration’s self-assured assertion of the lawfulness of Awlaki’s death-by-drone speaks more of a society cultivating a Wild West ethos than a functioning legal society. With the most powerful nation in the international community leading the way in both eroding a long established non-assassination norm and simultaneously establishing a “we have no choice” mentality in its political practices, the slope we have just embarked on may well prove to be too slippery to be sustainable.
While there was no shortage of critics to highlight that the assassination of Bin Laden essentially amounts to unlawful killing, the US, and the international community at large, remained steadfast that not only was the killing just but also legal. To date, scholars and legal professionals were at little pains to frame drone assassinations in terms of legitimate actions in the military engagement against legitimate military targets. Rarely were the assertions that drone strikes are entirely legal questioned in a lasting and active way. Too opaque is the reality of the practice and the procedures that lead to a strike, too vague and disputable the numbers of casualties occurred and too obviously ‘evil’ are the prominent targets that there remained a sustained and active critique of the drones programme as illegitimate. Today, this legality can and must be questioned anew, as Awlaki reportedly was not engaged in military fighting and the US has no other involvement in armed conflict in Yemen, but was simply extinguished as a potential threat of the worst kind.
The philosophy behind today’s assassination act speaks of a biopolitical motivation: to keep the population healthy and unscathed, it must be cured of its terrorist cancer. The biopolitical mandate which places its political focus on the health, welfare and survival of a population gives priority to mechanisms and means to secure precisely this political goal. For better or for worse. It is in this medical demarcation, that the unfolding of biopolitical exclusionary violence in the name of the protection of a population becomes salient in the discussion of violence in contemporary (Western) modernity. This line of analysis suggests that biopolitics inevitably creates a relational construct that finds its basis in opposing conditions: that which is killed justifies with its death the life of those who live. Therein, precisely, is the slippery slope. As Hannah Arendt reminds us in her considerations on the origins of totalitarian rule:
A conception of law which identifies what is right with the notion of what is good for – for the individual, or the family, or the people or the largest number – becomes inevitable once the absolute and transcendent measurement of religion or the law or nature have lost their authority. And this predicament I by no means solved if the unit to which the ‘good for’ applies is as large as mankind itself. For it is quite conceivable, and even within the realm of practical political possibilities, that the one fine day a highly organised and mechanised humanity will conclude quite democratically … that for humanity as a whole it would be better to liquidate certain parts thereof.