Questions about drones

The president needs to level with the public about targeted killings

Although President Obama wasn’t specific in his State of the Union speech Tuesday about America’s targeted drone killings, he did tacitly acknowledge the increasingly vocal criticism of the practice occasioned by the confirmation hearings of John Brennan, a veteran of the antiterrorism wars, to be the next director of the CIA.

The president’s overall goal is clear: He’s trying to wage war against al-Qaida and its offshoots without putting boots on the ground. Drone warfare has advantages, in that American lives aren’t put at risk and far fewer innocent civilians are killed.

But some do die, including children, and those who argue that this is immoral have a powerful point. War is a terrible thing, and nothing can make the killing of children right. But we should remember that the president bears the burden of keeping America safe in a dangerous world, and he’s chosen what he believes is the least horrible way of doing so.

He’s moved forward, however, without publicly asking some fundamental questions, such as: Do the drone killings defeat their purpose by generating more recruits to terrorism? Does targeting American citizens violate core principles of American law? Does allowing the president to be judge, jury and executioner violate the separation of powers? What will our response be when other countries obtain their own drones? How can we accurately determine who is a terrorist and who is not from high in the air?

In his speech, the president said he recognized that, “in our democracy, no one should just take my word for it that we’re doing things the right way.” He pledged to make his administration’s efforts “even more transparent to the American people and to the world.”

Polls show Americans oppose the killing of civilians and the targeting of American citizens. If the Obama administration is sincere about wanting greater transparency, it can begin by answering the questions listed above.