On the campaign trail, candidate Donald Trump said that to defeat the self-proclaimed Islamic State, the United States had to “take out their families.” As president, his attitude hasn’t changed. According to an account in The Washington Post, Trump was shown footage of a CIA drone strike in which the operators had refrained from firing “until the target had wandered away from a house with his family inside.” Trump reportedly asked, “Why did you wait?”
Collective punishment is not only morally depraved, it is also illegal and counterproductive. But while Trump’s drone comments rightfully deserve scrutiny, most reactions to them miss an important point. U.S. targeting practices and policies already fail the tests of international law and strategic logic—and that’s without a formal decision to permit the deliberate targeting of spouses and children of terrorist suspects.
The distinction between civilian and combatant, including in regard to terrorists’ families, is a fundamental and universally recognized part of the law of war. Without it, the very concept of war crimes, which has protected civilians from the worst ravages of war since the Geneva Conventions were revised in the wake of the Holocaust, would all but disappear. The U.S. government should distinguish between terrorist targets and their families because killing innocent men, women and children who take no part in hostilities and pose no threat is not only murder, but anathema to American values. Counterterrorism experts such as Paul Pillar understand that the U.S. and its allies cannot kill their way to victory over terrorism.