Drones were back in the news this past week. First, the UN is poised to publicly criticize the US for allowing CIA operators to conduct lethal attacks with drones, in a report to be released later this week. Then, the US military released a report sharply criticizing operational failures that led to the deaths of 23 civilians in a convoy in February. And Newsweek has a big lead article about the extent to which drone strikes, regardless of their legality or side-effects, are fueling homegrown terror.
I would like to posit that to some extent, the issues at stake in all of these debates are much broader than the issue of drones and it may be problematic to focus on drones, as if altering our “drone policy” will resolve the broader issues. Bear in mind that drone themselves are simply remotely piloted aerial vehicles. They’re not robots and they’re not making decisions on their own, Star Wars-like. (Though they might in the near future which would raise entirely different ethical questions.) Except for the fact that the pilots are operating remotely from the safety of a military base (or CIA facility), these weapons are little different than other forms of air power. Of course, as Peter Singer has documented there are those who are troubled by the dislocation of the warrior from his targets, but this argument is as old as the long-bow and doesn’t necessarily pose legal issues. It should also be pointed out that drones have many extremely useful non-lethal applications: reconnaissance that helps ground troops avoid civilians, for example. And drones are not simply being used to hunt terrorists in Pakistan. They have civilian and law enforcement uses as well: to monitor the drug trade in South America or population flows across borders. (Not that these surveillance functionalities don’t also involve pressing trade-offs with respect to rights and civil liberties.)
Speaking just in terms of using drones as attack weapons here, I would argue the important issue here is not whether we use drones. The issues are a) whether it is right to use any weapon in such a manner as to risk more casualties among civilians than we are willing to accept among our own troops (as both manned and unmanned forms of aerial bombing do) b) whether we are willing to use any weapon to summarily execute individuals we have associated with criminal organizations whether or not they are engaged in what might be considered combat operations against us and c) whether it is either right or effective to outsource the deployment of lethal violence – by drones or by other means – from our military to our civilian agencies?