The killing last week of Anwar al-Awlaki by a high-tech drone makes abundantly clear what was not, in fact, stated clearly enough when President Obama ran for president in 2008--which is that the Obama alternative to the type of wars waged, with gusto, by G. W. Bush is to greatly expand the use of drones to kill persons identified as US "enemies."
In this context, I do not find myself overly moved by the idea that the rightness or wrongness of such a killing hinges on the citizenship of the person killed. I get that there is some value in holding up the ideal of the rule of law, but there is also a risk that this concern with the rule of law will take the place of--rather than bolster--a commitment to act ethically (and not merely "legally").
One point that does seem crucial to me is to note just how willing both the Obama administration and the media have been to replace asking whether such killings are ethical with a purely consequentialist judgment that they are "justified," based on the idea that the ethical question must be suspended given the consequences of not stopping "terrorists." This was famously the Bush administration's argument for torture, which always began with a hypothetical situation in which "torture" was (it was assumed) necessary to stop a heinous act of terrorism and then asked: "does not that situation justify torture?" Logically, this argument amounted to little more than an effort to push the addressee into conceding the hypothetical premise. To give this argument a name, we might call it "reductio ad 9/11."
What further bears notice, though, is that for people who so insist on consequentialist judgments about the use of drones to kill (at the expense of engaging in any serious ethical inquiry into the matter), the advocates of this use of drones (including the President) seem to be quite naive about (or indifferent to) the longterm consequences of what they are doing.
Can anyone really believe that the U.S. will retain its current monopoly (or near-monopoly) over this technology? Surely, the very effectiveness of the drones will lead to their proliferation. And when that happens, we all will face a new type of terrorism.
Put simply: the drones will not really make us--by which I mean humanity--safer, precisely because of what they have in common with Bush's egregious wars, from which they otherwise seem to differ so much. That common denominator is specifically, and simply, that both the Obama drones and the Bush wars fail to address, and fail to work through, the underlying conditions that produce the terrorisms that haunt our world.
That alone makes the ongoing use of the drones unethical.