Since November 2002, the United States has killed over 3,600 people in non-battlefield settings with drones, cruise missiles, AC-130 gunships, and special operations forces. It is unknown how many of them were unidentified men killed only because of their profile and a U.S. claim that they posed a "continuing and imminent threat." President Obama acknowledged in May that "it is a hard fact that U.S. strikes have resulted in civilian casualties," though he said that "there's a wide gap between U.S. assessments of such casualties and nongovernmental reports." As first reported by Jonathan Landay, the still-classified CIA assessments of drone strikes conducted in Pakistan over 14 months in 2010 and 2011 found that roughly one-quarter of the 600 people killed were what the CIA termed "other militants," meaning that they were collateral damage or that they were targeted only because of their behavioral profile. Amazingly, no U.S. government official has ever acknowledged that the United States conducts signature strikes.
The day before Obama spoke about Trayvon Martin, Nasser al-Awlaki -- a former Fulbright scholar and Yemeni minister of agriculture and fisheries -- published a powerful op-ed in the New York Times titled "The Drone That Killed My Grandson." His 16-year-old grandson, an American citizen named Abdulrahman, was killed, along with six other individuals, by a U.S. drone strike in October 2011. A State Department spokesperson initially absolved the United States of any responsibility, claiming: "We have not received confirmation of his death from the government of Yemen. We have no additional information at this time." In May, Attorney General Eric Holder sent a letter to the Senate Judiciary Committee that finally acknowledged that, since 2009, al-Awlaki and two other American citizens had died in U.S. counterterrorism operations, in which they "were not specifically targeted by the United States."
Over time, other officials acknowledged -- always anonymously -- that Abdulrahman al-Awlaki had been either inadvertently targeted or was collateral damage. Princeton University doctoral candidate and Yemen expert Gregory Johnsen wrote that the missile that killed al-Awlaki was actually intended for Ibrahim al-Banna, an Egyptian member of al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula. Whatever the reason, the available evidence suggests that a 16-year-old U.S. citizen was the unintended casualty of a signature strike.
Nasser al-Awlaki closed his Times op-ed by asking: "The government has killed a 16-year-old American boy. Shouldn't it at least have to explain why?" For a president invested in showing leadership by setting the tone for discussions of race at home, he should answer that question directly. He should then announce an end to signature strikes, since nobody should ever be killed based on how they look or for being in the wrong place at the wrong time.