The Drone Dilemma

Yesterday, I read an article from the Council on Foreign Relations called “Reforming U.S. Drone Strike Policies.” The opening paragraph read:

Over the last ten years, drones have become a critical tool in the war against terrorist and militant organizations worldwide. Their advantages over other weapons and intelligence systems are well known. They can silently observe an individual, group, or location for hours on end, but take immediate action should a strike opportunity become available—all without putting a pilot at risk. This combination of capabilities is unique and has allowed the United States to decimate the leadership of al-Qaeda in Afghanistan and disrupt the activities of many other militant groups.

The paragraph seems to be a wholehearted endorsement of drones. But everyone knows what happens when you start peeling the layers of an onion. What appear to be reasons for drone strikes also happen to be reasons against them.

Take the assertion that drones can observe enemies “…for hours on end, but take immediate action should a strike opportunity become available…” Speed of strike is lauded as a benefit and it certainly can be—considering how elusive terrorist operatives are. But the other side of the coin is that speed reduces the accuracy of intelligence gathering and verification. This point was tragically made on March 17, 2011 (and on multiple other occasions), when a drone that was monitoring a car in Northern Pakistan suddenly spotted a large gathering of people nearby. The drone was quickly diverted—firing 4 missiles on the crowd. Reports later confirmed the gathering was a “Jirga”—a meeting of tribal elders—and that 40 innocent civilians had been killed in the attack. So, is speedy strike good or bad?

Now let’s look at the assertion that drones can accomplish their missions “…without putting a pilot at risk.” There’s no arguing this fact. Drone operatives are sitting comfortably in Langley—driving their machines with what look like Xbox video game joysticks. But just as before, there is also another side to this coin and one that deserves a great deal of consideration.

I realize what I am about to say may be controversial, but so be it.

Drones allow war to be conducted from afar, with no risk of casualties to our side. This may seem at first glance to be a benefit but it’s not. The risk of loss is a fundamental checks/balances for any side of a conflict. It provides a sort of moral cue, all the way to the top. Commanders are more cautious and risk averse when American lives are at stake. So too are the politicians that command them. Finally, the system of checks/balances ends with each American citizen who votes for our political leaders. In all, when warfare requires imminent risk to our side, we tend to weigh our options more carefully and thoughtfully.

Is it fair to say that people sitting comfortably in CIA headquarters (or the White House for that matter) may be missing a fundamental part of the moral feedback loop that commanders on the ground possess?

In what is known as the Milgram Experiment (1961), psychologist Stanley Milgram studied obedience to authority and whether regular people could inflict pain on innocent bystanders on command. Milgram set up his experiment by having an “authority figure” (a member of the research team) command the subjects to electrocute a complete “stranger” (a paid actor). Unbeknownst to the subjects was that the electrical shocks weren’t really happening: the actors were simply playing their roles. Surprisingly (or not), the vast majority of subjects “electrocuted” the stranger on command—even while Milgram pretended to increase the voltage of each shock.

What interests me the most about the Milgram experiment—and what is most pertinent to our conversation about drones—are the subsequent research designs that were devised (“Milgram’s variations”). One such design used the same basic principles of the original experiment (subject “electrocutes” a “bystander”) but added physical distance to the equation. The further away the subject was from the bystander, the more likely he/she was to “electrocute” them. In other words, physical distance decreased the moral consequences to the subject of hurting the other person.

Conclusion: sitting in Langley with a joystick in your hand decreases the moral implications of killing people on the other side of the globe.

The concerns voiced above are only the tip of the iceberg. And much like icebergs, what is seen on the surface regarding the issue of drones is only a miniscule part of what lies beneath.

- Brookings estimates that “for every militant killed, 10 or so civilians also died”.

- A new report done by NYU and Stanford provides some valuable details into the drone war:

Following nine months of intensive research—including two investigations in Pakistan,more than 130 interviews with victims, witnesses, and experts, and review of thousands of pages of documentation and media reporting—this report presents evidence of the damaging and counterproductive effects of current US drone strike policies

- Drone strikes have expanded to target mourners at funerals.

- The practice of “follow-up” drone strikes is now used to target rescuers who attempt to help those wounded in a first attack.

The list goes on but you get the point. Bottom line: have we lost our moral compass in the fight against terrorism? I sincerely think so.

This point was brought to light by the hit TV show Homeland (yes, I realize it’s fiction). In one episode, the head of the CIA is discussing a possible drone attack on the Osama Bin Laden of the show (Abu Nazir) when someone alerts him to the presence of children on the ground. The CIA boss responds: “if Abu Nazir chooses to hide among children, then their death is his responsibility.” This fictional line reminded me of Obama advisor Robert Gibbs and his response to the drone strike that killed 16 year old American citizen Abdulrahman al-Awlaki (the son of Al Qaeda operative Anwar al-Awlaki). When questioned about whether the US should assassinate American citizens without due process, Gibbs answered: “I would suggest that you should have a far more responsible father if they are truly concerned about the well being of their children.” In other words, the US government is not responsible for the boy’s death…his father is. By the same token, if my mother were to kill someone tomorrow, would it be moral for me to pay for her crime? Is this what we now call “justice”?

I completely understand the lure of drones. But such an effective killing machine deserves more level-headed analysis and greater responsibility and accountability from our government. Drones present us with a timeless moral dilemma: do the ends always justify the means?


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