As most of you know President Obama has used drones to kill an American high profile terrorist named Anwar al-Awlaki, a US citizen born in New Mexico. This sort of killing raises the debate about if we should be killing people without putting them on trial vs. how do we protect Innocent lives from terrorists. In this debate there is no one that is either totally right or totally wrong.
In my opinion there isn't - nor should there be a law that lets the president kill anyone they want. But there needs to be a mechanism that allows the president to kill anyone who needs to be killed to protect the country. How do we do both in a nation under law? We actually have a mechanism for doing that. It's called justification.
Justification is a legal defense that allows anyone to break any law as long as it's justified. For example, if a crazy person is loose and they have already just killed 3 people, we don't have to wait to put him on trial to shoot him on sight. We are protecting the public preventing him from killing more. There isn't a law that says that we have a right to do that. Technically it's still illegal, but justified. And it's justified if a cop makes a mistake and kills the wrong person thinking he is shooting the fugitive.
Drone attacks and killing terrorists isn't something we do to someone who is already captured. We do it to people who are on the loose and in countries where we can't easily reach them. And although their threat isn't an imminent as a gunman in your neighborhood, they are just as deadly and often more so. So on that basis I don't have a problem with it.
However - although a killing might be justified there needs to be a process to justify it. We are after all a nation of laws and we can't have people like the president going around breaking the law. So there needs to be a process in place to provide oversight and guidelines to review these cases individually and determine if the president or CIA acted in a justifiable way. We can all understand the justification for killing terrorists in Yemen who are killing us. But what about Julian Assage of Wikileaks? Do we kill him for free speech? Where do we draw the line and who gets to decide that?
What's good for the goose
We also have to keep in mind that what's good for the goose is good for the gander. Suppose the terrorist was living in America killing Chinese citizens and China sent in a drone to kill someone they determined to be a terrorist? Why is it different if we do it to them or they do it to us. If by our actions we create a justification for other countries to do the same then the long term consequences might outweigh the short term gain.
This is similar to our decision to set up a torture camp in Iraq during the Bush administration. Even if, as some might argue, we got valuable information, what price did we pay for it? When Americans are caught and tortured we no longer have the moral justification to complain because we did it - they should be able to do it too. That's why we need a civilized process and we need to follow it to set an example for the rest of the world.
Technology and Digital Karma
One thing we need to keep in mind is that as drone technology increases more people will be able to get their hands on it. Some day we might be able to make a drone the size of a mosquito that has a lethal bite and the parts can be bought online at NewEgg for $100. For example, when we developed the Stuxnet Virus that attacked Iran's uranium enrichment facilities we made a big mistake that we are going to have to pay for someday. Once they figure out how to do the same thing they could bring us down. Someday we are going to pay the price for that.
These problems are not simple and we are going to have to be smart about how we use new technology. We have to be careful to do it right. As they said in the Spiderman movies - with great power comes great responsibility.