|Hey - What could possibly go wrong?|
Essentially, a government can engage in three different kinds of sanctioned killing. They can, of course, go to war. This is long accepted practice, and while even starting an aggressive war is considered a war crime, the killings that occur as a result of that war are considered generally legal. There is capital punishment - a government, through whatever judicial procedures it decides to require, chooses to punish a person for some classes of criminal acts by killing them. Just about every other case of a government deciding to kill someone, either for "defense", revenge or other political, diplomatic or espionage reasons is assassination.
When the US Government determines that it is going to kill another person somewhere where it is not involved in a war - Pakistan, Yemen, Somalia, for example - those so-called "targeted killings" are assassinations, completely equivalent whether the targets are American or any other nationality. Either there is some process, both in US and International law, where under these specific circumstances the extra-judicial killing is permitted, or each and every one is a crime. There is also the matter of the US Constitution - the 4th and 5th Amendments are not reserved for Americans, but are presumed to cover everyone. The right to a speedy trial, the protection from self-incrimination, the rules around search and seizure apply to everyone, not just Americans. The Fifth Amendment makes no distinction whatsoever when it states "[N]or shall any person . . . be deprived of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law . . ."
Beyond the clear problems that come to the fore when one tries to make a distinction between the US Government choosing to kill Americans and it choosing to kill people of other nationalities - it's hard to imagine a construct not entirely premised on a brutal form of nationalist bigotry - there is this bizarre and irrational focus on drones. Is there some assumption that if the US sent a hit squad into Waziristan and killed people there it would be somehow different, even better? If a B-1 manned bomber flies from Missouri and flattens that same Pakistani tribal village, is that covered by a different set of rules? Of course not. The problem with using drones is twofold - one current, one to be reckoned with in the future. The current problem is purely one of assumption. The assumption that all the rules of national sovereignty and the sanctity of legitimately recognized borders simply don't apply if the invading attacker is robotic, rather than piloted from onboard. The future problem of international terrorism by airborne robot is that the technology is not out of reach of any nation or organization. It is not like F-22s, or submarines, or even nuclear weapons. It is inexpensive, simple and highly effective. It WILL come back on the US, first in shocking attacks that "no one could have expected", then in larger and larger numbers that will change much about our lives. And a little farther in the future, we'll have the technology to allow completely autonomous vehicles to make their own decisions about who and when to kill - whether we decide to enable that capability or not, it is a certainty that there are people who will.
So while we argue about the issue of using drones to assassinate American citizens, we are peering through a tiny crack, unable to see the larger legal, technological, human rights and basic values problems that we are nonetheless exposing. The world is watching, and learning - we should at least be cognizant of what we are teaching.