Just war and Obama’s kill list

As much as we look at coverage of domestic policies and whether the religion angles in those stories were covered well, we rarely see much coverage that explores religion angles in foreign policy.

But there was a major story in the New York Times last week about a major foreign policy issue that we need to look at. It was headlined “Secret ‘Kill List’ Proves a Test of Obama’s Principles and Will,” a somewhat interesting headline considering the story introduced this kill list news. This is an important story that I hope everyone has had the chance to read over. It is maybe six thousand words long or so, and we won’t be able to excerpt enough to give you a feel for it.

Here’s a chunk from the beginning:

The mug shots and brief biographies resembled a high school yearbook layout. Several were Americans. Two were teenagers, including a girl who looked even younger than her 17 years.

President Obama, overseeing the regular Tuesday counterterrorism meeting of two dozen security officials in the White House Situation Room, took a moment to study the faces. It was Jan. 19, 2010, the end of a first year in office punctuated by terrorist plots and culminating in a brush with catastrophe over Detroit on Christmas Day, a reminder that a successful attack could derail his presidency. Yet he faced adversaries without uniforms, often indistinguishable from the civilians around them.

“How old are these people?” he asked, according to two officials present. “If they are starting to use children,” he said of Al Qaeda, “we are moving into a whole different phase.”

It was not a theoretical question: Mr. Obama has placed himself at the helm of a top secret “nominations” process to designate terrorists for kill or capture, of which the capture part has become largely theoretical. He had vowed to align the fight against Al Qaeda with American values; the chart, introducing people whose deaths he might soon be asked to order, underscored just what a moral and legal conundrum this could be.

Mr. Obama is the liberal law professor who campaigned against the Iraq war and torture, and then insisted on approving every new name on an expanding “kill list,” poring over terrorist suspects’ biographies on what one official calls the macabre “baseball cards” of an unconventional war. When a rare opportunity for a drone strike at a top terrorist arises — but his family is with him — it is the president who has reserved to himself the final moral calculation.

Now obviously a story about the very existence of this list, much less the decisions President Obama is making with regard to the list, requires an exploration of some religious angles. That would be true even if President Obama weren’t someone who publicly discusses how he relies on his faith to make decisions.

While we looked at a few related stories during the Bush Administration, it was very frustrating how infrequently media coverage of the Bush decisions discussed the role religion and ethics did play, or could play, in the story.

A reader pointed out a few excerpts in this story that touched on important religious ghosts. Here’s one:

Beside the president at every step is his counterterrorism adviser, John O. Brennan, who is variously compared by colleagues to a dogged police detective, tracking terrorists from his cavelike office in the White House basement, or a priest whose blessing has become indispensable to Mr. Obama, echoing the president’s attempt to apply the “just war” theories of Christian philosophers to a brutal modern conflict.

Oh how I would have loved some amplification on this. I wondered if there were any actual clergy or religious advisers involved in the decision-making. I wanted to know much more about President Obama’s attempt to apply Just War theory. There was this brief addition:

Aides say Mr. Obama has several reasons for becoming so immersed in lethal counterterrorism operations. A student of writings on war by Augustine and Thomas Aquinas, he believes that he should take moral responsibility for such actions. And he knows that bad strikes can tarnish America’s image and derail diplomacy.

What does it mean to take moral responsibility? What is President Obama’s view on this? What are outside experts saying?

There is no denying that these discussions are difficult and complex, but coverage of the kill list and those involved with deploying the kill list should include much more about the ethics, morality and religious views in play here.

It’s been a week since this story ran. Have you seen any good media coverage of the underlying values in conflict or how religious adherents weigh in? Are we seeing the same fault lines among religious adherents that we saw in the Bush era? Has public opinion changed at all? If so, how?

There was at least one tidbit in the article itself about how some views had evolved in intervening years:

Harold H. Koh, for instance, as dean of Yale Law School was a leading liberal critic of the Bush administration’s counterterrorism policies. But since becoming the State Department’s top lawyer, Mr. Koh said, he has found in Mr. Brennan a principled ally.

“If John Brennan is the last guy in the room with the president, I’m comfortable, because Brennan is a person of genuine moral rectitude,” Mr. Koh said. “It’s as though you had a priest with extremely strong moral values who was suddenly charged with leading a war.”

While the article gives a lot of information on Brennan, I do wonder if we could have gotten more explanation of why Koh describes him as a priest. Particularly since so much of the article relates to his advice about killing people on the list.

And while there have been a few stories here or there looking at the actual ethical decisions involved with drone warfare, we need to see more on this topic as we see increases in these drone attacks — including the people authorizing the use of or guiding the drones and how their remoteness affects their ability to do their job and deal with the consequences of the actions.

Drone image via Shutterstock.

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  • Jerry

    Mollie, one of your comments is a bit off to me. Perhaps it could have been better worded. The quote is:

    “Brennan is a person of genuine moral rectitude…It’s as though you had a priest”

    But you wrote:

    “I do wonder if we could have gotten more explanation of why Koh describes him as a priest”

    To me, he was described that way because of his moral rectitude as was stated. Since the article was not about Brennan, I’m not sure that a digression into how he’s demonstrated his morals in the past was warranted but it’s something I too would be interested in knowing more about.

  • John Penta

    What I want to know: Who’s the priest whose blessing the article speaks of?

  • http://authenticbioethics.blogspot.com AuthenticBioethics

    I would have liked to see a little more on Augustine and Aquinas, and how much of them Obama actually studied. Did these philosophers/theologians have excerpts of their work cited by a textbook he had for part of a class? Did he write a term paper on the subject? Who taught the class?

    Also, it would be nice to know if Obama agreed with Augustine and Aquinas. If so, we could find out more about he justifies using undetectable, remote-controlled aircraft to hunt and kill specific targets. If not, it would be helpful to know what he disagrees with and why.

    The religion questions do run deep. If somehow religious sensibilities form the president’s policies, it would be nice to know more about those sensibilities.

    All in all, I find that the story of Obama’s kill list making it to the MSM at all a little disturbing. OK, I would be naive to think that only he’s the first president to have a kill list. On the other hand, I think he’s the first who has had the fact made public during an election year. So I have a question about that: Why tell the public? And if there is anything in the assumption that it’s to somehow make Obama look like a heroic combination of compassion and toughness, would it be too much to think that he has a kill list at all mainly for its political effects? And is that in Aquinas… or is he also a student of Machiavelli?

  • Deacon John M. Bresnahan

    Somehow drone executing a person (and those around him-even children) strikes me as more morally problematic than the water-boarding of a single individual for possibly very helpful information.
    Yet the same media that went almost hysterical over the water-board issue under Bush seems generally quiescent over the drone killing issue under Obama.

  • sari

    The religion angle can be pursued only by interviewing Obama. The material presented was second hand, much of it provided by individuals formerly in positions of power. Studying texts, religious or otherwise, exposes a person to different perspectives, period. Past that, without input from the person(s) involved, the reporter slides into speculation.

  • http://www.getreligion.org Mollie

    Obama isn’t the only person considering the moral implications of drone warfare, of course. I’d hope that stories would pursue what average Americans think about the issue and how religion plays a role in their thinking, too. In this story, which introduces Obama’s kill list, though, it would require talking to him or including more of what he’d said publicly about related issues.

  • sari

    I’d hope that stories would pursue what average Americans think about the issue and how religion plays a role in their thinking, too.

    The problem with such articles is that they’re about the theoretical, not the actual. Obama’s, Bush’s, Clinton’s, and their predecessors’ position is unique and one not shared with the general populace, average or otherwise. The average American has limited to no access to the intelligence information necessary to make a calculated decision. And the media, by taking sides, has polarized issues to where it’s become almost impossible to have a reasoned discussion. The data simply aren’t there.

    Actions, on the other hand, say more. The demographics of those who rushed to sign up for military service after 9/11, advocated war, committed hate crimes against Muslims or engaged in hateful rhetoric (a few of which have turned up here) and, conversely, those who have done the opposite, both on the basis or religious principles.

  • Julia

    I keep hearing about hate crimes against Muslims, but I’ve never seen any such thing in the news – other than objections to the building of mosques.

  • http://www.getreligion.org Mollie

    This is an opinion piece from The Nation, but it explores some of what we’re talking about here.