Global Ethics Corner: Is a "Kill List" of Terrorists Ethical?

Jun 1, 2012

After a recent "New York Times" story on Obama's "kill list" of terrorists, many are questioning the president's counterterrorism strategy. Is it ethical for President Obama to be selecting targets? Should the United States be doing more to keep civilians from becoming collateral damage?

The New York Times reported recently on a secret White House "kill list" that President Obama himself oversees and approves as part of a weekly counterterrorism meeting. The kill list even includes some American citizens.

The front page story made headlines around the world. Some say it shows Obama's desire to take personal responsibility for U.S. actions in the fight against al-Qaeda and other terrorist groups.

Times reporters Jo Becker and Scott Shane called the depth of Obama's participation in the approval of deadly drone strikes "without precedent in presidential history."
The New Yorker's Amy Davidson concluded that Obama "has given the presidency a novel power."

But for others, news of a president making regular decisions about whom to kill called to mind President Lyndon Johnson's personal selection of bombing targets in North Vietnam. This practice disturbed the American public and earned LBJ a reputation as a desperate micromanager.

Perhaps the report's most significant revelation was of the administration's embrace of a broadened definition of the term "civilian."

Top officials say they have offered private warnings about an administration formula that they say low-balls the number of reported civilian casualties.

Officials told Becker and Shane that the White House "counts all military-age males in a strike zone as combatants . . . unless there is explicit intelligence posthumously proving them innocent."

This expansive definition of combatants lowers the number considered civilians. Some worry that Obama is reverting to the "shoot first, ask questions later" approach that many felt characterized the counterterrorism strategy of the Bush administration.

What do you think? Is the United States doing enough to protect innocent civilians from becoming collateral damage in drone strikes targeting terrorists? Should the president be this involved in selecting targets? Is it ethical to maintain a "kill list" of suspected terrorists?

For more information see

Jo Becker and Scott Shane, "Secret 'Kill List' Proves a Test of Obama’s Principles and Will," The New York Times, May 29, 2012

Chris Woods, "Report: Obama embraces disputed definition of 'civilian' in drone wars," World News on, May 30, 2012

Amy Davidson, "The President's Kill List," The New Yorker, May 30, 2012

Photo Credits in order of Appearance:

Samantha Appleton/White House
Andre N. McIntyre/U.S. Navy
Pete Souza/White House [also for pictures 8 & 13]
Brian Ferguson/U.S. Air Force
Arnold Newman
US Army
Susan Novak
Thomas Sjørup
Eric Draper
Mathieu Gilbert

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