This week the American People learned the Obama Administration has spent the last few months debating whether to order a drone strike on an American citizen believed to be a terrorist. Where the police have the legal authority to use lethal force against any individual representing an imminent threat to the lives of law enforcement officers and civilians while agents of the military clearly have the legal authority to use appropriate lethal force in order to fight a military threat. Unfortunately, terrorism is confusing, because it is neither just a policing issue nor just a military issue. The threat of terrorism is both timeless and borderless like any crime, yet terrorism also takes on the tactical characteristics of war.
Because assassination is illegal, the classification of terrorism matters. If terrorism is treated as a perpetual, borderless war, drones strikes would be justified, yet this type of open-ended war threatens democracy as war often demands a partial restriction of democratic rights and freedoms. Clearly, a perpetual war would be the end of many democratic rights and freedoms. If terrorism is treated as a crime, there must be an imminent threat before lethal force can be used while these so-called “targeted killings” without an imminent threat are just assassinations by another name. Regrettably, both the George W. Bush and Obama Administrations initially tried to distort the meaning of “imminent threat,” which created a greater threat as the legal standard for a justified killing was being redefined to mean anything the authorities want it to be.
In the current situation, all of these factors and more must be considered. Because the decision has been brought to the American People’s attention, we must now face the realities that come with terrorism and the need to preserve our legal protections. Because those planning terrorist attacks are rarely an imminent treat, it is unlikely a drone strike can be authorized legally. That said, the threat is still very real and must be addressed. At best, we can hope to respect the Constitution by offering the target some sort of Due Process in absentia. How to do this is a struggle that the Obama Administration has yet to overcome. With the American People now listening in on the internal debate, and hopefully seeking to balance the need to address terrorism with the need for limitations on government, more comprehensive solutions to this conundrum may start to present themselves. At the very least, the debate is now a public debate as it should be.
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