It is somewhat ironical that this subject generally applies to those who feel they have a choice. The Taliban does not spend much time reflecting on their right to kill. It is conferred, they sense, by the presence of an enemy on their soil, or by the violation of a holy law, or simply by being an “infidel”.
Al Qaeda has likewise never questioned its right to kill, even when its victims are palpably innocent. It could be argued that Al Qaeda, with its roots in the privileged and Bush-revered Bin Laden family, has always operated from choice. But it is choice that seems untinged by conscience or regret. It is the choice conferred by fanatic certitude, aka the very worst, seminal idolatry.
The question of the right to kill is properly addressed to we Americans, and to the President and others for whom these questions are not in the least academic.
The answer was clear enough the other day when Navy Seals dispatched three Somali pirates with three pin-point shots. The shots were designed to eliminate any chance that these pirates could stop the escape of their American hostage.
Was the right to kill so clear that no declaration of war was required? Thinking about it, this was perhaps seen as so transparently justified that no declaration was needed.
What about the prospect of using more drone attacks to accomplish what seems completely beyond the reach of any ground operation in Afpak? Do we need to rethink our evident rejection of the term war on terror? We are, after all, pursuing precisely that, perhaps seriously, for the first time.
I am inclined to think that if the Obama government undertakes to initiate a continuing drone strategy in Afpak, declaring to the world its right to kill with something like impunity, the decision does require interpretation as to whether it qualifies as a police action, in which case no declaration would be sought, or as an act of war, requiring the approval of Congress.
In an earlier post, I suggested that the right to kill may exist in situations where the damage we seek to prevent is comparable to the damage Hitler did after he was allowed to run roughshod over France. Looking at the record of Al Queda, and the chilling prospect of a takeover in Pakistan that could result in the use of viable atomic weapons at will against Western targets, I have little doubt that a clear justification for preventive measures would exist. I say that in the spirit of my mentor, the late Don Benedict, who initially opposed World War Two, spent time in jail as a pacifist, then concluded he must fight, and did. I say it understanding the courage and agony of Bonhoeffer, whose assault on Hitler failed. It was, in any case, too late to ward off the Nazi leader’s worst depredations.
The US has, as a nation, operated with anarchic, and even bullying, impunity in the past around the world, never seeking justification at any point. Now we have a President who is exceedingly strong yet committed to the rule of law.
It will be important to see how Barack Obama deals with this issue if he decides that drone attacks, and similar pinpointed anti-terrorist measures, must proceed in Afpak.