Politics & Policy

Trump’s Call to Kill Family Members of Terrorists Is Quarter-Baked

(Sean Rayford/Getty)

Donald Trump’s latest idea is that the U.S. should kill the family members of terrorists. Hesitating to do that, he suggests, would be a sign of weakness, a to bow to “political correctness.” I realize that the Obama administration’s lapses on terrorism have prompted a strong reaction, but we must not emulate the practices of dictators — not to mention the Mafia and outlaw biker gangs — and punish people who might have no knowledge of terrorist acts.

“The other thing with the terrorists is you have to take out their families, when you get these terrorists, you have to take out their families,” Trump said on Fox News earlier this month. “They care about their lives, don’t kid yourself. When they say they don’t care about their lives, you have to take out their families.”

Trump insists that family members “know what is going on,” but in many cases that’s simply not true, especially when it comes to people outside the immediate family circle.

Trump had a chance to walk back his position during Tuesday’s CNN debate in Las Vegas. John Jacob, a college student, asked a pre-recorded question about whether Trump’s policy would violate “the principle of distinction between civilians and combatants in international law.”

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But Trump didn’t flinch, saying that he “would be very, very firm with families” and repeating his view that terrorists “may not care much about their [own] lives.” But, he added, “they do care, believe it or not, about their families’ lives.”

There hasn’t been enough criticism of the Trump position in conservative circles. To his credit, columnist Charles Krauthammer did call it “an unbelievably, irresponsible, semi-insane policy.” In a rare point of agreement with Senator Rand Paul, Krauthammer told Fox News that “you’d have to tear up the Geneva Conventions.”

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After World War II, 196 state parties agreed to the Third Geneva Convention in order to refine the rules of war. A key tenet aims to protect civilians: “The civilian population as such, as well as individual civilians, shall not be the object of attack. Acts or threats of violence the primary purpose of which is to spread terror among the civilian population are prohibited.” One could argue that going after the families of terrorists is itself a form of terrorism.

None of this means that the U.S. government is barred from killing civilians in the course of fighting terrorism: Drone strikes often kill civilians. The Geneva Conventions permit the killing of civilians if measures are taken so that the loss of life isn’t excessive relative to the military goal.

#share#Scrapping the Geneva Conventions is another Trump idea that is almost certainly unrealistic. The Pentagon’s War Manual, revised as recently as this June, specifically states that civilians can’t be made the object of an attack. The U.S. has recognized the Conventions as binding, and the Supreme Court in its 2006 decision Hamdan v. Rumsfeld agreed that the Geneva Conventions are binding until a new treaty or rule replaces them.

If the Trump Standard is applied, the U.S. would be joining a sordid collection of regimes that have used collective punishment to stay in power.

If the Trump Standard is applied, the U.S. would be joining a sordid collection of regimes that have used collective punishment to stay in power. The most famous current practitioner is North Korea, where relatives of people who escape the Hermit Kingdom are often murdered or thrown into brutal labor camps where death rates are staggering. The Soviet Union routinely killed family members who had committed no crimes on their own, because they were “relatives of enemies of the people.”

But it was Nazi Germany that made Sippenhaft, or “kin liability,” famous in the 20th century. Heinrich Himmler, head of Hitler’s SS, told his deputies in 1944 speech that the ancient German Teutons had decreed harsh punishment for the family of a supposed traitor:

The responsibility of kin . . .  isn’t Bolshevik at all but a very old custom practiced among our forefathers. You can read up about it in the Teutonic sagas. . . . When the family was outlawed and banned, they said: This man has committed treason; the blood is bad; there is traitor’s blood in him; that must we wiped out. And in the blood feud the entire clan was wiped out down to the last member.

The American people are understandably frustrated and angry that threats of terrorism are looming over this country during the holiday season. As much as Donald Trump serves as a vessel for some of those fears, we should not follow his latest spontaneous proposal. Often, they are half-baked. In the case of using collective punishment against the families of terrorists, he’s come up with a quarter-baked idea.

— John Fund is National Review Online’s national-affairs correspondent.

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