Commentary: Targeted killings have deadly, tainted history

The Fort Worth Star-TelegramMarch 18, 2013 


Bob Ray Sanders is a columnist for the Fort Worth Star-Telegram.


The name Patrice Lumumba doesn't mean anything to most Americans today, and certainly not to most people in my home state of Texas.

But since this country was complicit in Lumumba's death -- his "assassination" -- this is a man we should know, especially when we once again have given the president of the United States the authority to selectively have people killed.

Lumumba was a rising star in Africa, having helped his beloved Democratic Republic of the Congo gain its independence from Belgium in 1960 and becoming its first prime minister. His call for a unified Africa free of colonial control didn't sit well with many western leaders, and even President Dwight Eisenhower decided he needed to be "eliminated."

Although the CIA plot to poison him was not carried out, the U.S. helped foment dissension in the Congo, leading to Lumumba's being deposed, captured and killed by a firing squad under a Belgian's command late one night, just seven months after independence was won. He was 35.

Americans do know the name Fidel Castro. The United States had at least eight plots to kill him in the early 1960s. Needless to say, none succeeded. It was after revelations of the attempted Castro assassinations that President Gerald Ford issued an executive order prohibiting the practice, saying, "No employee of the United States Government shall engage in, or conspire to engage in political assassination."

Presidents Jimmy Carter and Ronald Regan confirmed the policy.

Things changed in 2001, after the 9-11 terrorist attacks designed by Osama bin Laden, when President George W. Bush declared war on al Qaeda and authorized "lethal covert operations" to get bin Laden, "dead or alive."

Bin Laden was killed by Navy Seals in 2011 at his Pakistani compound in an operation ordered by President Barack Obama.

In prosecuting the "war on terror" the Obama administration has ramped up drone attacks on "enemy combatants" in Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia. High-profile al Qaeda leaders have been killed under a policy in which the president gives final approval for the bombings.

This unconventional war against enemy groups and individuals rather than countries presents a huge ethical dilemma. I am troubled that anyone, let alone the president, can decide what individual ought to die.

That debate has been amplified as congressional leaders question whether the president has the right to order drone strikes on American citizens within the country. While I think that is a far-fetched idea, it is an important discussion to have.

Drone strikes ought to be bothersome even if you agree that certain identified terrorist leaders ought to be killed. Too often, they are not the only ones who die once a missile is fired.

A study by Stanford and New York University law schools points out that drone strikes are not necessarily clean surgical attacks that do no other damage. Citing statistics of the Bureau of Investigative Journalism based in London, the study reported that from June 2004 to mid-September 2012, "drone strikes killed 2,562 [to] 3,325 people in Pakistan, of whom 474-881 were civilians, including 176 children. Another 1,228 to 1,362 people were injured."

How much is too much "collateral damage" in such attacks?

We can't know everything about how our government works to protect us, but it seems when we condone state-sponsored killings there needs to be much more oversight.

And once we sanction it, we may be inviting others to follow suit.

That could mean a return to those days of the last century when targeting heads of state was easier and cheaper than waging all-out war.

No one wants to go back there -- right?

McClatchy Washington Bureau is pleased to provide this opportunity to share information, experiences and observations about what's in the news. Some of the comments may be reprinted elsewhere in the site or in the newspaper. We encourage lively, open debate on the issues of the day, and ask that you refrain from profanity, hate speech, personal comments and remarks that are off point. Thank you for taking the time to offer your thoughts.

Commenting FAQs | Terms of Service