Duck-rabbits and drones: legal indeterminacy in the war on terror.

AuthorBrooks, Rosa

"I shall call the following figure ... the duck-rabbit. It can be seen as a rabbit's head, or as a duck's."

--Ludwig Wittgenstein, Philosophical Investigations (xi) (1)


Thirteen years after the 9/11 attacks, we're still going around in circles, unable to find satisfactory answers to even the most basic legal questions. Are U.S. efforts to counter the activities of al Qaeda and its associates subject to the law of armed conflict, or not? Does the answer depend on geography? On the nature and scale of "enemy" activities? Who is the enemy? What is an "associate" of al Qaeda, and which individuals can be detained or targeted, subject to what legal limits?

This Article argues that the law cannot provide answers to any of these questions. In fact, the search for the "correct" legal answer to these questions is not only fruitless, but also counterproductive. It distracts us from the far more important question: in an era in which traditional legal constructs no longer place meaningful limits on a State's use of lethal force, what new constraints are desirable and feasible, and, going forward, how can we embed them in policy and law?

In Part I of this Article, I look back at the weeks and months following the 9/11 attacks and outline the various competing arguments about the how the attacks should, as a legal matter, be characterized. In Part II, I argue that there can be no definitive answer to most of the key "legal" questions raised by the 9/11 attacks, since different ways of conceptualizing the events of 9/11 (and subsequent events) both reflect and trigger entirely different--and to a great extent mutually exclusive--legal frameworks. In Part III, I note that the fact that there is no "correct" legal framework does not mean that the choice of legal frameworks is therefore inconsequential. Far from it: the U.S. government's decision to rely on an armed conflict framework after 9/11 has had far-reaching consequences, raising a host of new and equally unanswerable questions, and thereby dramatically reducing the ability of existing law to act as an effective check on government power. In Part IV, I note that our growing inability to draw reasonably clear lines between "war" and "non-war" has institutional as well as legal consequences. In Part V, the conclusion, I argue that we need to accept that existing law can offer little useful guidance on how the U.S. should respond to terrorism. The questions we face are currently questions of policy, not law, though how we answer those policy questions should, ultimately, lead us to create new law.


    In the days and weeks immediately after September 11, 2011, the 9/11 terrorist attacks became for many the legal equivalent of a Rorschach test. While most commentators insisted that there was a manifestly correct and a manifestly incorrect way to understand the applicable legal paradigm for the 9/11 attacks, there was little agreement on just what constituted the applicable legal framework. Depending on the observer, the 9/11 attacks were variously construed as criminal acts, acts of war, or something in between, thus fitting into (and triggering) any of several radically different legal regimes.

    In liberal and libertarian-leaning circles, for instance, many scholars took the view that since the 9/11 attacks were carried out by non-state actors, using nothing that resembled traditional weapons, they were best understood as criminal acts. Though they were crimes of a frightening magnitude and complexity, the attacks were considered by such scholars to be appropriately addressed through an ordinary law enforcement paradigm. Such commentators roundly dismissed the notion that the attacks could trigger a "war." French law professor Alain Pellet labeled the claim that the U.S. was at war with al Qaeda "legally false," (2) for instance, and Antonio Cassese, the first president of the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia, agreed, writing in 2001: "It is obvious that in this case 'war' is a misnomer. War is an armed conflict between two or more states." (3)

    James Cole, who was later appointed to a senior Justice Department position by President Obama, in a 2002 article, similarly insisted that "[f]or all the rhetoric about war, the Sept. 11 attacks were criminal acts of terrorism against a civilian population, much like the terrorist acts of Timothy McVeigh." (4) September 11 was a "devastating crime," Cole continued, but one for which ordinary criminal law offered the most appropriate framework. (5) Amnesty International took the same view, arguing in a 2003 report that under international law, "it is not possible to have an international armed conflict between a state on the one hand and a non-state actor on the other," unless the non-state group forms "part of the armed forces of a Party to the Geneva Conventions." (6)

    More than a decade later, variants of this view continue to have strong adherents. As a recent European Council on Foreign Relations report by Anthony Dworkin notes, most European legal scholars and courts "[reject] the notion of a de-territorialised global armed conflict between the U.S. and al-Qaeda," and believe that although a "confrontation between a state and a non-state group" can in theory rise to the level of an armed conflict, it can only do so if "the non-state group meets a threshold for organization [when] ... there are intense hostilities between the two parties ... [and] fighting [is] concentrated within a specific zone (or zones) of hostilities.... [T]he default European assumption would be that the threat of terrorism should be confronted within a law enforcement framework." (7)

    But if some commentators viewed law enforcement as the "obviously" correct legal paradigm for addressing 9/11 and subsequent terrorist threats, others insisted with equal certainty on the correctness of the opposite proposition: insofar as the 9/11 attacks stemmed from overseas and caused death and destruction on a scale more commonly associated with armed conflict than with crime, they should be conceptualized as acts of war, triggering the lex specialis of armed conflict.

    It took the Bush administration and its lawyers only hours to decide that the 2001 terrorist attacks constituted an "act of war." On the evening of September 11, with smoke still swirling above the ruins of the World Trade Center and estimates of the dead ranging as high as 10,000, President Bush promised that America would ".win the war against terrorism." (8) Two days later, he told reporters that on 9/11, "an act of war was declared on the United States of America." Although his phrasing was murky, his meaning was not: the war on terror, said Bush, would be "the first war of the 21st century." (9)

    Bush Administration lawyers elaborated on the president's words. "There is little disagreement with the conclusion that if the September 11 attacks had been launched by another nation, an armed conflict under international law would exist," asserted Justice Department lawyers John Yoo and Julian Ho.

    The attacks were coordinated from abroad, by a foreign entity, with the primary aim of inflicting massive civilian casualties and loss.... [T]he head of al Qaeda, Osama bin Laden, declared war on the United States as early as 1996. Finally, the scope and the intensity of the destruction is one that in the past could only have been carried out by a nation-state, and should qualify the attacks as an act of war. (10) State Department Legal Advisor William H. Taft agreed: "The law of armed conflict provides the most appropriate legal framework for regulating the use of force in the war on terrorism." (11)

    Although the Obama Administration has moved away from the "global war on terror" language favored by the Bush administration, its legal analysis remains strikingly similar today. As former White House counterterrorism advisor John Brennan put it in 2011, "[W]e are at war with al-Qa'ida. In an indisputable act of aggression, al-Qa'ida attacked our nation and killed nearly 3,000 innocent people." (12) President Obama repeated the same sentiment in a May 2013 speech, leaving as little room for doubt: "Under domestic law, and international law, the United States is at war with al Qaeda, the Taliban, and their associated forces." (13)

    "Crime" and "war" were not the only possible ways to conceptualize the 9/11 attacks. The events of 9/11 might also have been understood as an "armed attack" of sufficient gravity to trigger an international law right to use armed force for the limited purpose of self-defense, but without triggering a full-scale "armed conflict" between the U.S. and the perpetrators of the attacks. (14) At times, both the Bush and Obama administrations have...

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