There are names and faces that should serve as stop signs to wrongheaded national policies. The children killed in Newtown should be that symbol for lax gun regulations, for example. Sadly, what should be a similar symbolic tragedy is slipping by largely unnoticed.
The Obama administration recently revealed that it had killed a 16-year-old American citizen, Abdulrahmen al-Awlaki, in a drone strike in Yemen on October 14, 2011. Nine others, some suspected of terrorist links, died in the same attack. Al-Awlaki's father, Anwar al-Awlaki, was killed the same way the previous month.
The death of an innocent American child should be the stop sign for our drone program. The justification given by former Obama administration press secretary Robert Gibbs was this: The Denver-born child should have "had a more responsible father." That someone who was recently a part of explaining such actions would even think such a thing tells us how far we have strayed from the principles of this nation:We are seemingly undisturbed when an American child is cut down by a killer flying robot owned by our government.
Two fundamental American principles, one modern and one ancient, are violated by this act.
First, the Supreme Court has held in a series of recent cases that the lives of children are especially important even when they are guilty of heinous crimes (a fact not known to be present in the Abdulrahmen al-Awlaki case). In 2005, the court held that the death penalty cannot be exacted against those who commit their crimes as children. In the past few years the court has extended this line of thinking in strictly limiting the use of the sentence of life without parole against juvenile offenders. The underlying principle is clear: The government's killing of children, or even incarcerating them for life, is not allowable under the Constitution.
Second, insofar as Gibbs' justification for the killing is accepted, a subtle but important aspect of the Constitution's more ancient meaning is impugned. In a little-noticed but eloquent provision of Article III, our founding document sets out that "The Congress shall have Power to Declare the Punishment of Treason, but no Attainder of Treason shall work Corruption of Blood...." The "corruption of blood" referred to was part of the ancient British punishment for treason, through which the family of a person accused of treason was barred from inheriting his property. The underlying principle was both just and clear: The sins of the father should not be visited upon the son. A 16-year-old boy is innocent, even if his father is guilty.
That child's dead body is the stop sign. Flying killer robots are imprecise weapons, and the collateral damage is more than our principles can bear. Their advantage is cost and ease of use, but our nation distinguishes itself from others because of the importance we attach to things like childhood and innocence. We put our treasure into things like determining who is truly guilty and ensuring a chance for each child, and that impulse is what defines us, not a liability.