Beginning in 1988, the U.S. officially considered Nelson Mandela’s political party, the African National Congress, to be a terrorist organization. Mr. Mandela himself was placed on the U.S. terrorist watch list until 2008.

In his speech at Northwestern University, on March 5, 2012, Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. defended the killing of terrorists, designated as such by the executive branch, as legal and as requiring no judicial review. Mr. Holder was responding in particular to the prior Sept. 30 drone killings of U.S. citizen Anwar al-Awlaki and, two weeks later, his 16-year-old son. Prior to and since then, numerous such “terrorists” have been killed.

If the U.S. government can err so completely as to view Mr. Mandela as a terrorist threat until 2008, then it can err today in deciding who is and who is not a terrorist. If the United States had had the drone capability and “legal” rationale in 1988 that it has today, it might have killed Mr. Mandela. There may be someone who would have been a Mandela of the future had not he or she been killed, quite “legally,” by the U.S. government in a drone attack.

John L. Hodge, Jamaica Plain, Mass.