What if the DEA began assassinating people that it suspected of possessing or distributing drugs in violation of federal drug laws? Would there be anything wrong with that, from a moral perspective?
I suspect that most people would answer yes. That certainly would be my answer. If the government suspects someone of violating drug laws, it should have to follow the centuries-old procedure of arresting the person, charging him with the crime, and prosecuting him, all the while according him well-established procedural rights and guarantees such as due process of law, right to counsel, right to confront witnesses, and right of trial by jury.
What’s wrong with just avoiding all that hassle and just authorizing the DEA to assassinate suspected drug-law violators? Why not trust our government officials to make that decision? It would certainly save the taxpayers a lot of trouble and money.
One reason is that government officials, like everyone else, make mistakes. If we give them the power to assassinate drug users and drug dealers, it’s a virtual certainty that, from time to time, they are going to be assassinating innocent people.
After all, let’s not forget that juries in drug cases oftentimes acquit the person who is being accused of a drug-war violation by the state. The nice thing about a trial is that it forces the state to prove a person’s guilt and also that it enables a person to convince a jury that he isn’t guilty of what the state is saying he’s guilty of.
Finally, I think most people would feel that the death penalty is much too severe a penalty for possessing, ingesting, or distributing drugs.
In the United States, the military is prohibited from enforcing criminal laws. The American people have decided, as a matter of policy, that it’s not good to put soldiers in a police role. Soldiers are trained to kill while the police are supposed to be trained to protect the public from criminals.
But let’s assume that that prohibition was abolished and that the U.S. military, as well as the CIA, are called upon to join the DEA in waging the war on drugs.
Do the principles change at all? Should the military and the CIA be authorized to assassinate drug users and drug dealers? I suspect that some people would say yes. They would argue that now that the military and the CIA are involved, this is real war — a “war on drugs” – and, therefore, that it’s morally okay to kill people in war. They would view the drug users and drug dealers as enemies in this war and, therefore, would say that there is nothing wrong with assassinating them. In fact, my hunch is that the soldiers and CIA agents would be honored and glorified by some people for protecting our rights and freedoms and keeping us safe from the drug users and drug lords.
But in reality, nothing has changed. The only difference is that the military and the CIA are now enforcing drug laws. There isn’t a real war, like between nation states in World War I and World War II. The term “war on drugs” would continue to operate as nothing more than a figure of speech. The fact that the national security branch of the federal government is coming to the assistance of an executive branch agency (the DEA) doesn’t change the essence of what is happening. It just means that more government force is being brought to bear in the enforcement of drug laws.
In such a case, the military and the CIA could no more legitimately assassinate suspected drug users or drug dealers than the DEA can today. Soldiers and CIA agents would be required to follow the same rules of conduct that DEA agents are required to follow.
What if Border Patrol agents began assassinating suspected terrorists here in the United States? Some Americans, overly consumed with their safety, wouldn’t have any problems with vesting the Border Patrol with that sort of power. Government agents can be trusted to do the right thing, they would say. Let them assassinate the bad guys.
Yet, the principles involved in the war on drugs are no different in the so-called war on terrorism. Terrorism is a federal criminal offense. It’s listed in the U.S. Code as a federal crime. That’s why there are criminal prosecutions in federal district court in New York, Washington, Virginia, Michigan, and other states. Federal prosecutors secure an indictment from a federal grand jury charging violations of federal terrorism cases and then proceed to prosecute the defendant.
Indeed, that’s what the federal prosecution of the Boston bomber, Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, is all about. It’s being conducted in U.S. District Court in Boston. The defendant is being prosecuted for terrorism. The feds are seeking the death penalty, which the jury is now deciding on.
Given that the military and the CIA are engaged in waging “the war on terrorism,” what if a soldier or CIA agent had instead assassinated Tsarnaev?
Some people would undoubtedly say that’s okay because when the military and the CIA have been brought in to wage the “war on terrorism,” a war, they say, that is global in nature.
Not so, however. It would be just as wrong for the Pentagon and the CIA to assassinate Tsarnaev as it is for the DEA to assassinate a drug user or drug dealer. Even though the military and the CIA are involved in enforcing laws against terrorism, it remains a federal criminal offense regardless of what federal agency is enforcing it. The fact that the military and the CIA are enforcing a criminal statute does not convert the matter into a real war. Instead, it converts the military and the CIA into police officials.
The arguments against assassination in terrorism cases are no different from those in drug-war cases. When it comes to the violation of criminal statutes, the ideal is to leave the military and the CIA out of the enforcement. But if they are brought into the enforcement of a criminal statute, they shouldn’t be assassinating people before trial in terrorism cases any more than they should in drug war cases.