February 8, 2013
The Drone Problem

squashed writes the following regarding the Obama administration’s drone program:

First, we have a plethora of ways we kill people. What makes drones so special? Dead is dead—whether it’s a sniper rifle, a police pistol, or a drone missile. I don’t see the moral distinction.

Second, I don’t see why it’s less acceptable to kill “American citizens” than it is to kill citizens of other countries. Is the implicit argument that American citizens are somehow better? That they should be afforded protections other people have? People are people.

That guy in Alabama who took that kid hostage in the bunker and was then shot by the FBI was also a U.S. citizen killed without judicial process. Of course, already killed a guy and was holding a child hostage in an explosive-rigged bunker. Would adding drones have changed the moral calculation?

I am, however, concerned about the reluctance to release the drone memos. I’m not certain that drone warfare is anything new or that it’s somehow worse than other kinds of warfare. But I don’t buy that something like a legal policy memorandum has the type of operational detail that would require withholding it from public scrutiny. I don’t like writing blank checks.

With respect to your first point, I think this is a misguided way to analyze the moral calculus of the drone program.  Politicalprof made a similar comment awhile back that I think will help illuminate the issue:

Drone strikes are our least deadly way to brutalize the world. So if we’re going to do something, I’d rather it were drone strikes than carpet bombing with B-52s and phosphorous bombs.

I don’t think there’s anyone that wouldn’t agree with this statement as written.  If brutalizing foreign populations is a foregone conclusion, then the least deadly method is clearly preferable.  But it’s also kind of irrelevant, because it doesn’t tell us anything important about the ethics of drone strikes.  To analogize some well-known dialogue from Good Will Hunting: if my father intends to beat me senseless, and he allows me to choose between a belt or a wrench, it’s clearly rational to choose the belt.  But we’d like to stop parents from abusing their children en toto, if possible—hence the reason why we have a debate about corporal punishment in America.  To state that I prefer the belt to the wrench is just stating the obvious.  Everybody would.  

But the choice between drones and carpet bombing is a false choice, just as the choice between  drone missiles, sniper rifles & police pistols is a false choice as well.  We don’t need to use any of them—although if we’re speaking purely about means by which the government kills people, there are pretty obvious differences between high-explosive munitions and small arms fire.  Indeed, if we were forced to choose between using snipers and drone missiles, the former might be able to avoid a situation like this:

Late last August, a 40-year-old cleric named Salem Ahmed bin Ali Jaber stood up to deliver a speech denouncing Al Qaeda in a village mosque in far eastern Yemen.

It was a brave gesture by a father of seven who commanded great respect in the community, and it did not go unnoticed. Two days later, three members of Al Qaeda came to the mosque in the tiny village of Khashamir after 9 p.m., saying they merely wanted to talk. Mr. Jaber agreed to meet them, bringing his cousin Waleed Abdullah, a police officer, for protection.

As the five men stood arguing by a cluster of palm trees, a volley of remotely operated American missiles shot down from the night sky and incinerated them all, along with a camel that was tied up nearby.

That’s not an endorsement for inundating Yemen with American sniper brigades.  But in the case above, the U.S. government apparently killed two anti-Al-Qaeda villagers in Yemen to get at three suspected members of Al-Qaeda.  Keep in mind that under the Obama Administration’s guidelines, the anti-Al-Qaeda cleric and his cousin are also counted as “militants,” for merely breathing the same air as a suspected terrorist.  But this is a concrete example of collateral damage that is being caused by drone missile attacks.  And it makes America’s enemies stronger, not weaker. 

Our choices here are not between drone strikes & some equal or greater form of violence.  Carpet bombing would, for example, be objectionable because a lot of innocent people would suffer and die.  But so too, do innocent people suffer and die in drone strikes.  The question is not which, but whether.

With regards to Squashed’s second point, concern over the killing of U.S. citizens has more to do with enforcing the due process guarantees of the U.S. Constitution than appealing to the inherent value of American life.  Since America still operates from a position of political hegemony in global affairs, the way we treat our citizens inherently affects the way that foreign citizens are treated, both by our government and by government abroad.  Foreign citizens inherently benefit from rigorous enforcement of   U.S. Constitutional rights, as U.S. courts have often granted those protections to foreign citizens while in U.S. courts.  Although it’s kind of hard for any citizen to benefit from those protections when we kill them without allowing them to step into the courthouse.

But more importantly, there is quite possibly no government policy that demonstrates a reckless disregard for the value of foreign-born life than America’s drone program.  Can you imagine what America’s response would be if another country was using drone aircraft to fire missiles at enemies on American soil?  Would Russia be justified in utilizing drone strikes if they discovered Chechnyan sympathizers planning terrorist attacks on Russian cities while living in America?  Would the U.S. government tolerate even one innocent American child to be blown up by a foreign government’s missile, regardless of the ends of its controller?  Certainly not.  As Obama mentioned last year while speaking in Thailand, "no country on earth would tolerate missiles raining down on its citizens from outside its borders."  Unless, apparently, the country is Yemen or Pakistan, and the missiles are being launched by America. 

The drone program is concerning for all these reasons and more.  As Squashed properly notes, it is being conducted in secret (notwithstanding the recently leaked memo), killing innocent people, and undermines our national security by creating enormous resentment towards America around the world.  It serves as a recruiting tool for our enemies, and turns potential allies into detractors.  The Yemeni cleric above was an enemy of Al-Qaeda.  Now, after a U.S. drone missile killed him and his cousin, the cleric’s family undoubtedly has the same rage towards America that many American families had towards Al-Qaeda the day after their loved ones perished in the World Trade Center complex on 9/11.  It is not simply the government secrecy that should concern people, but everything else, to boot.

(Source: prettayprettaygood)

  1. walklikethedead reblogged this from prettayprettaygood and added:
    This is one of the things that pissed me off about the Obama Administration from the start; policies that enraged...
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    a little old, but GREAT read
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