Discussing the Legal Basis for Killing U.S. Citizens Abroad

Today the U.S. Senate will debate a paper prepared by the Justice Department that argues that it is lawful for the government to kill an American citizen if “an informed, high-level official” decides that the target is a ranking figure in Al Qaeda who poses “an imminent threat of violent attack against the United States” and if his capture is not feasible.

Hina Shamsi, director of the American Civil Liberties Union’s National Security Project, called the paper “a profoundly disturbing document,” and said, “It’s hard to believe that it was produced in a democracy built on a system of checks and balances. It summarizes in cold legal terms a stunning overreach of executive authority – the claimed power to declare Americans a threat and kill them far from a recognized battlefield and without any judicial involvement.”

These are some of the reader comments in The New York Times, Tuesday, February 5:

Imminent means “ready to take place” according to the dictionary. Imminent means “may occur at some later time” according to the government. Twisted definition, twisted logic, twisted morality.

Sometimes, American citizens do get killed on U.S. soil without the due process of law. E.g., criminals who resist arrest, with firearms. But somehow, this targeted killing of a US citizen in a foreign country, without any attempt to arrest, makes me feel creepy.

What if another country wants to kill its citizens who live in the U.S., ones who are considered a threat to their home country? You do it, why shouldn’t we?

We seem to forget that we, like the Israelis, are at war with terrorists who want to kill us. It isn’t hard to determine who they are. They brag about it. Protect me from them and the American Civil Liberties Union.

After all, he did swear the other day to protect America from “all enemies, foreign and domestic”…


3 responses to “Discussing the Legal Basis for Killing U.S. Citizens Abroad

  1. Michael Gundy

    “Thou shalt not kill”

    However, two exceptions have evolved for killing: after due process and as an act of war. Anything else is wrong.

    • and self-defence, which I suspect this case is supposed to be. The definition of ‘imminent threat’, though, is so broad as to be ‘maybe some day’, which rather weakens the justification.

      I don’t see the justification for distinguishing between non-judicial executions of Americans and non-Americans. I don’t think the latter have fewer rights under international law, or even US law for most purposes including the right not to be killed without due process etc, than Americans.

      If the US can do this, why can’t the other ~200 countries in the world, too, without declaring war, just eliminating ‘imminent threats’.

  2. Sounds as another ‘transparent’ policy application of the nearly inscrutable principle of ‘plausible deniablity’ justified by the ‘exceptionalist’ ends over the ‘imminent’ means. Disturbing, indeed.