Drone Attacks: American Citizens and Foreign Civilians

11 Oct


The execution of Anwar al-Awlaki, an American-Yemeni imam, by a drone attack in Yemen on September 30, 2011  has generated a lively debate among liberally minded lawyers in the United States because al-Awlaki was an American citizen. The implication in some of the discourse is that emphasizing the American citizenship of the victim is more likely to induce an American court to disallow abusive violence if the victim is a citizen, and there are Supreme Court precedents to back this up this interpretation of the relativity of rights based on nationality (e.g. Hamdi, Padilla cases).  Perhaps, understandably the courts are less likely to hide behind the Political Questions Doctrine to avoid passing judgment on foreign policy decisions, especially in the area of war and peace, if the target is an American citizen engaged in hostile actions overseas.


But what disturbs me about this distinction is the further implication that if the victim had not been a citizen there would be nothing worth discussing, that the U.S. Government claims the unreviewable right to unleash lethal violence against persons anywhere in the world (even if far from the ‘hot battlefields’ such as Afghanistan) if they are considered to be threats to American security, and the evidence for considering them to be a threat need even not be disclosed. Secrecy adds to this kind borderless violence that drone technology and counterterrorist doctrine and practice make the ugly new face of American imperial power in a variety of countries in Asia and Africa, and perhaps elsewhere.


In our globalized world do we as Americans really want to endow government officials with more discretion and less accountability when it comes to the overseas killing of foreigners than do in relation to Americans? Should we not oppose such discretion altogether, and rely totally upon cooperative law enforcement with the government of the territorial sovereign? In law, whatever is claimed, is tolerated, and so this precedent may have a most welcome blowback impact at a later point in time. In geopolitics, double standards abound, but this engenders violent resistance, and widespread fear, hatred, and extremism.

What bothers me most about this current public debate on the lawfulness of al-Awlaki’s execution is that it seems to reflect the same gross insensitivity to massive foreign civilian casualties inflicted in the course of America’s military interventions. Such insensitivity has been characteristic of the American way of dealing with these deadly side effects of its foreign military policy

eversince Vietnam, but also long before. Recall the bloodshed inflicted on Filipinos in Spanish American War of 1898, or upon the First Peoples of this country.

After leaving his position as Secretary of Defense during the crucial phases of the American involvement in the Vietnam War, McNamara repeatedly expressed his regrets for the loss of American lives during the Vietnam War, but without even mentioning the ten times greater Vietnamese losses. During the Iraq War Rumsfeld unapologetically told the media with his typical bluntness that Pentagon does not waste its time collecting data on Iraqi civilian casualties.

In a globalized world, such necrophilic nationalism strikes me as deeply offensive, as well as accounting for much of the growing hostility to the American role in the world.

Against this background I would highly recommend reading John Tirman’s recent book, The Deaths of Others: The Fate of Civilians in America’s Wars, published by Oxford University Press in 2011. Tirman, the Executive Director of MIT’s Center of International Studies, graphically depicts this pattern that seems to combine denial with indifference. How few of us realize that in the Iraq War more than 1 million Iraqi civilians died, another 4.5 million were displaced (with about half becoming refugees), 1-2 million Iraqi women became widows, and 5 million children became orphans. These are startling figures, and do not even take account of the destruction of the Iraqi infrastructure that made much of the drinking water unsafe and made it impossible for many children to receive any education. It takes a dedicated student of foreign policy to gain familiarity with such grim statistics of these American wars. Our main media outlets are dutiful in sustaining denial and ignorance. Liberal self-censorship knows no limits when it comes to American foreign policy in either war/peace settings or when it comes to the Israel/Palestine conflict.

We need to recall, as well, that the Iraq War was a notorious ‘war of choice,’ a non-defensive war with no legal justification and no UN Security Council authorization. It should be remembered that the United States took the lead after World War II in punishing surviving German and Japanese civilian and military leaders for their role in waging wars of aggression, which were categorized as ‘Crimes Against Peace’ at Nuremberg and Tokyo.

Are we as a nation and a people incapable of acknowledging and atoning for wrongdoing on this scale? In effect, is it too late to restore democracy, and time to realize we are governed according to the lawless logic of a permanent state of emergency without even the integrity to acknowledge such a militarization of our governing process?


8 Responses to “Drone Attacks: American Citizens and Foreign Civilians”

  1. monalisa October 11, 2011 at 1:07 pm #

    Dear Richard,
    being not an US citizen I can only write down my impression from far away:
    most US Americans don’t know what is really happening. They aren’t aware of the more than five million of orphans created by US and British military in Iraq. Nobody even mentiones these hundreds of women who were (and most probably are still) raped by US and British soldiers during the last years …

    but what I see is that even the European mainstream media isn’t reporting much. To get to the truth is has to be searched.

    I think meanwhile the Nuremberg Tribunal has become a farce;
    from the website: http://www.undemocracy.com/A-RES-3314(XXIX)/page2
    reading the Annex of the 2319th UNO plenary meeting of 14 December 1974 stating:
    Definition of Aggression
    in its 5th para it reads:
    Considering also that, since aggression is the most serious and dangerous form of the illegal use of force, being fraught, in the conditions created by the existence of all types of weapons of mass destruction, with the possible threat of a world conflict and all its catastrophic consequences, aggression should be defined at the present stage.
    in its 6th para:
    Reaffirming the duty of States not to use armed force to deprive peoples of their right to self-determination, freedom and independence, or to disrupt territorial integrity.

    I wrote the beforementioned down because I think that maybe people, hopefully young people, would read it and become more aware what is going on.

    If US citizen would know how many crimes the US government is responsible for they would much more quickly demand human rights as well as international law to be installed again.

    If US citizen would know how much the state budget is spending not only on unnecessary wars but also on these many, many US departments in other countries for”peace”!! – also a thing which is surely not very well known to the average man. But paid by US taxpayers.

    I am sure that far too many US citizen don’t know the reality: the mainstream media does its work very good – reminds me of the Roman-Catholic church with their indoctrination of fear. Same is done by the US government: people should held in fear so that they are easily to manipulate.

    And as long as the majority of the US citizen don’t know the real facts they are indolerant and even arrogant: its their right, because ….. and here is the fear implemented.

    Nobody asked where all the billions of Dollars of the Irak has gone? It vanished and nothing has been built with it.
    The same could happen with Libya – billions and billions are where? And for what spent?

    If we would these happenings read in a history book we would read that: in Irak in the years of 2003 to 2011 there was murder coupled with genozide while the International Law was dismissed and robbery in a big style consisting of billions of Dollars took place.
    The infrastructure was completely demolished up to the point that no drinking water was available in many areas and the soil of many areas had become radioactive for the next 2,4 millions of years becausse of all these DU-warheads used to “discipline” the Irak population.

    As long as the mainstream media are doing their job properly and misleading the population: no, the arrogance will prevail.


    • Lloyd Bennett October 19, 2011 at 7:24 am #


      Have you considered the number of orphans and pain caused by the Islamic extremist as a result of the destruction of the World Trade Centers? What would you have done to ensure that sort of murder would not be repeated on your land? Would you pursue the murderers?
      Or do you subscribe to the idiotic rantings of Mr. Falk?
      American’s are not as ill informed as many may think. We grieve for the loss of life no where or who perpetrates it. Nonetheless, you will pay a price if you harm us.
      The American people have attempted to aid most people of the world. It has been both sucessful and a dismal failure. But, think about this, Monalisa, where would the people of this world be without the intervention of the US across the history of the world. I doubt you would be happier with Hitler, Hussein, Qudaffi, etc.
      Yes, being a group of humans, we are falable. We possess no fault not common to mankind. Americans have also been at the forefront of the most admirable kindness known to mankind. And, we have seen and eliminaed many atrocities exacted upon others. Human suffering is an unacceptable result of some of these actions.
      Members of the US Military have been guilty of all the atrocities of conquering armies. Where known and identified, they have also been prosecuted by American law. I have worn the uniform of four branches of the US military. I was always taught to obey law and protect non-combants.We do, unfortunaely, possess our share thugs.
      Perhaps we are arrogant, Perhaps technology will bring us closer to the world population and that might moderate our separateness. But, one thing we will not surrender for global understanding is the Constitution. It remains man’s best hope for freedom. It is under much pressure both inwardly, and outwardly.
      Mr. Falk spouts therories that he can not support. He understands that as a trained lawyer. Lawyers argue everything and define nothing.

      Proud American
      Jamestown, Kentucky

      • David October 30, 2011 at 11:19 am #

        Dear Lloyd, you may be a proud American, but you could be a little prouder of yourself if you were informed about who, exactly, attacked the United States on 9/11. It wasn’t Iraq. And we’d all be a lot prouder of you too if you had been able in the last 10 YEARS to absorb this shocking revelation, which was obvious to many before the war and almost everyone else shortly after the war.

        Since you love American intervention so much and feel so strongly about it, would you mind terribly if we stuffed you into a circus cannon and shot you into the next American conflict? I feel the choice of a circus cannon is very appropriate in your case.

  2. Beau Oolayforos November 25, 2014 at 9:46 pm #

    Dear Professor Falk,
    We must thank you once again for opening our eyes to historical facts and contexts. Even the most rabid critic of this essay agrees that the Constitution “is under much pressure” – yes, extrajudicial killing is of a piece with indefinite imprisonment without charges – due process is out of the question for foreigners, and as we see from the present case, it’s iffy for US citizens too.


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