Sunday, March 9, 2014

When Is It OK to Kill By Remote Control?

Tomorrow my ENG 100 students will be discussing Mark Bowden's article "The Killing Machines: How to Think about Drones," published last summer in The Atlantic. The essay begins by paraphrasing the Biblical story of David and Goliath in order to establish that technologies of violence which make fights unfair are nothing new--they go all the way back to this infamous slingshot. It's hard, however, to think of the U.S. military's Predator drone as a 21st century slingshot, or the U.S. as David. After all, the U.S. is not an underdog--it's the world's only remaining military superpower. No other nation on the planet spends even half as much as the U.S. does on its military. (China, #2 on the list, spends about 1/4 as much as the U.S. does.)

In other words, imagine Goliath had the slingshot. And a nuclear bomb. That's the scenario.

Bowden goes on in his essay to show his readers that many of the common conceptions about drones are, in fact, misconceptions. There is no reason to believe that law enforcement would start to use them to kill domestic criminals; the police don't have snipers take out drug dealers, after all. While the use of drone strikes may inadvertently lead to civilian casualties, ground strikes and manned air strikes on comparable targets actually tend to produce more such casualties. Other nations are not going to use drones against the U.S. on American soil because drones would be easily noticed and intercepted. The most innovative aspect of drone technology is not, in fact, its capacity to blow things up, but its capacity to gather sustained, accurate surveillance leading to unprecedented military intelligence.

But when is it legally and ethically justifiable to use drones as "killing machines"? Bowden seems to imply that if drones are used only in times of war against verifiable enemies and with transparency and accountability, then the Commander-in-Chief ordering such executions should be on strong moral and legal ground. From my own perspective, I worry about the slippery definitions of "war" and "enemy" in our current political climate. The U.S. has been at "war" with al Qaeda since 2001, though war was never officially declared and al Qaeda is a network of international criminals--not a nation. Many people have been killed by U.S. drone strikes who were not members of al Qaeda. Even the ones who were killed--why aren't they entitled to a trial before execution, like any other serious, suspected criminal?

If this technology can keep American troops safer, then it certainly has a purpose and a valid use. But as a means of executing international criminals? I think that contradicts American values. Let's work with local and/or international law enforcement to capture and prosecute those plotting to do us harm. If we have enough evidence to convince the President that someone is a legitimate target, then we should have enough evidence to convict that same guy in a court of law.

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