Global Ethics Corner: How Should the U.S. Handle Islamic Terrorists?

November 4, 2011

It has been a particularly deadly year for militant Islamic opponents of U.S. military power.

First, in May, Navy SEALS killed al-Qaeda founder Osama bin Laden in a safe house in Pakistan. Then, in June, U.S. drone missiles killed three senior al-Qaeda operatives in Yemen. A similar fate befell the Yemeni-American imam Anwar al-Awlaki in September. That same month, drones killed al-Qaeda chief operations officer Abu Hafs al Shahri in Pakistan.

According to USAToday reporter David Jackson, about 20 senior al-Qaeda leaders have been targeted and killed by American forces since 2009. This record of success has broad domestic support. An October poll found that 63 percent of the country approves of the way the current administration is handling the war on terrorism.

These high-profile targets mark a departure, however. Previously, many of the ethical dilemmas presented by the War on Terrorism centered on the treatment of detainees. Was it legal to imprison enemy combatants offshore in Guantanamo Bay or at CIA "black sites" in foreign lands? Did the so-called "enhanced interrogation techniques" approved by Justice Department lawyers amount to torture?

Many thought that they did. But this debate has receded, as targeted killings have become the norm. Guantanamo Bay once housed nearly 450 prisoners, and that population has been reduced to about 175 in the past few years. But the fact that offshore U.S. military prisons remain open is testament to the difficult question of how to properly handle Islamic militants bent on destroying Western civilization.

Another difficult question looms just as large: Are we killing our most high-profile enemies to avoid sending them to military prison? What do you think?

For more information see

David Jackson, "Obama's Terrorist Hit List Grows," USAToday, September 30, 2011

Gerald Seib, "Domestic Woes Sideline Foreign Policy," The Wall Street Journal, November 1, 2011


Photo Credits in Order of Appearance:

Pete Souza
Abdul Rahman bin Laden
Muhammad ud-Deen
Staff Sgt. Stacy L. Pearsall/U.S. Air Force
Josh Pesavento
Federal Bureau of Investigation
Petty Officer 1st class Shane T. McCoy/U.S. Navy
Cherie A. Thurlby/Department of Defense, PD
Ron Sachs/CNP/Corbis
Erwin Lux
Pete Souza

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