Drone Killing Is Ethically Indefensible

The following is an excerpt from the new book We Kill Because We Can by Laurie Calhoun (Zed Books, 2015):


I first became aware of the existence of weaponized drones shortly after the execution by the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) of six persons driving down a road in Yemen on 3 November 2002. I watched footage of the aftermath of the attack in amazement, not that people could be pulverized to powder by such a mighty machine, but that the commentators on the event were unanimously praising it as a magnificent feat. There seemed to be no appreciation whatsoever of the maze of moral questions raised by the use of technology in this way.

Puzzled, I penned an essay, ‘The Strange Case of Summary Execution by Predator Drone’, which was published in Peace Review journal in early 2003. Six years later, in January 2009, elated and relieved by the results of the 2008 election and the prospect of a peace-loving president, I sent a copy of my essay to Barack Obama. Against all hope for change, summary execution by Predator drone was not brought to a halt by the new administration. Even more surprisingly, targeted killing came swiftly to define US foreign policy, despite never having been subjected to public debate.

The use of sophisticated technology to ‘find, fix, and finish’ unarmed human beings located in faraway places and selected for annihilation through secretive deliberations by a small committee of bureaucrats represents a radical departure from the ways in which ‘war’ was fought in the past. Somehow all of this escaped the attention of nearly everyone in the United States until three Americans were ‘taken out’ by Predator drone strikes authorized by President Obama in the fall of 2011. One of them was a sixteen-year-old boy, Abdulrahman al-Awlaki, the son of Anwar al-Awlaki, who had been killed two weeks earlier and who was an outspoken critic of what he characterized as the US government’s criminal war on Islamists.

People are polarized by Predator drones. For every person appalled by the remote-control killing of terrorist suspects, there is someone else who praises the practice. As ghastly as anti-drone activists believe the summary execution of unarmed persons to be, the policymakers have satisfied themselves that there is a legal framework through which to understand the lethal actions as permissible forms of warfare. If that framework, involving substantive reinterpretations of such concepts as imminent threat, is deemed valid, then presumably it will be invoked by other leaders and governments in the future, and it should be applicable retrospectively, too. If the new standards are applied consistently to all perpetrators of political homicide, then much of history will need to be rewritten.

Far more important than the legal conventions governing warfare, which are subject to modification as new leaders emerge and societies transform over time, are the moral principles reflected even by practices currently deemed legal. The time has arrived to subject the drone program, and all that it entails, to moral scrutiny, to soberly assess whether we can in good conscience condone the clinical killing of unarmed persons by operators whose lives are not in any direct danger when they kill. Drones also present an unprecedented opportunity to consider in a more general way the practice of war in the modern world. Targeted killings strip away all else from war but the premeditated end deliberately sought: the death of human beings.

Over the course of human history, military institutions have been incrementally removing ‘the human factor’ from warfare and increasing the distance between soldiers and the persons whom they kill. From bare hands and knives to arrows and spears, from one-shot rifles to rapid-fire machine guns capable of cutting an entire line of human beings in half, each successive generation of weapons has moved rival combatants farther and farther apart. Landmines are a form of automated technology, albeit crude, which were designed to impede the forward motion of enemy soldiers while allied soldiers lay in wait somewhere else. The invention of airplanes and bombs introduced not merely a quantitative but a qualitative change, making it possible to kill enemy troops from the sky. Atomic munitions exponentially increased the destructive force to be unleashed through the simple push of a button. In each of these cases, what began as an ingenious invention intended to minimize allied combatant casualties ended in the indiscriminate killing and maiming of civilians.

The most recent paradigm-shifting military innovation is the weaponized unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV), sometimes referred to as the unmanned combat aerial vehicle (UCAV). These aircraft are controlled by operators located thousands of miles away from the sites of their destruction. Armed with precision-guided missiles, UCAVs, the most prevalent of which is the Predator drone, are said by their advocates to make ‘surgical strikes’ against enemies possible while minimizing collateral damage and preserving allied soldiers’ lives.

The use of unmanned aircraft for literal force protection in declared war zones may seem like a natural extension of the warrior’s arm, not so different from the use of manned air support. For that purpose, drones were used after the US invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq, where occupying troops on the ground struggled daily with insurgent attacks on installations and on military vehicles attempting to travel from one place to another while patrolling areas of ferment.

Drones have proven, however, to be more than just another among many lethal weapons in the military’s arsenal for use in wars already waged. Over the course of less than a decade, both the practice of and the propensity toward institutional killing have been transformed by this new technology. Drones introduced the possibility of waging what are in effect wars without incurring the risk of soldiers’ death historically associated with calls to arms. In the past, the inevitable sacrifice of compatriot lives sometimes served to rein in bellicose leaders, who, before resorting to war, needed first persuasively to explain why the deployment—and likely loss—of troops had become necessary. With drones at their disposal, commanders have become freer to prosecute wars at their caprice—wars of choice—for they may do so without placing soldiers in harm’s way.

Given the nearly complete absence of domestic debate over the use of drones before they were deployed in hundreds of strikes abroad in countries with which the United States is not officially at war, it seems safe to say that technology has guided policy, and not vice versa. But does possibility imply permissibility? Should the current state of technology dictate morality? Or should not antecedent moral values shape policies and drive decisions about how to develop and use technology? These and many other questions of ethics are raised by the targeted killing of specific persons, a practice formerly considered taboo and undertaken only covertly by US leaders.

The first clue that technology has driven policy, not the other way around, is the preponderance of neologisms used to defend the practice of targeted killing. ‘Unlawful combatants’ are said to be protected by neither the Geneva Conventions nor the laws of civil society. ‘Imminent threats’ need not imply immediacy. The category of combatants subject to targeting has been enlarged to include all military-age men (from sixteen to fifty) in hostile areas, where ‘hostile’, too, is defined by the killers. On its face, this all looks like a suspicious form of linguistic legerdemain designed precisely to render permissible the use of Predator drones to dispatch persons abroad. What cannot be denied is that language is public, so if these neologisms and redefinitions are upheld by some governments, then they become available to others as well.

Today, the summary execution without trial of suspects in lands far away is carried out overtly and unselfconsciously and has come to be regarded by US military and political elites as a standard operating procedure—apparently for no better reason than that it is now easier than ever to kill. Surely the rapid ascendance of targeted killing as a means of addressing conflict has much to do with the simple fact that UAV technology is being used most extensively by a nation with a military so vast as to preclude retaliation by other states. The Israeli government was the first to deploy weaponized drones to eliminate stigmatized political enemies, but the US government was the first to do so thousands of miles beyond the borders of its sovereign territory.

The United States set the precedent for nuclear warheads and other weapons of mass destruction (WMD) now shared by several states and sought by many others, and it seems likely that other nations will also follow suit in the case of drones. Swiftly proliferating remotely piloted aircraft (RPA) technology has radically altered the practice of war in the twenty-first century and promises to remove more and more soldiers from the ‘battlefields’ where they kill. At the same time, the very availability of drones affects decisions about how, when, where and against whom this new form of ‘war’ is fought.

As new technology continues to spread around the globe, the leaders of other governments will emulate the superpower in dispatching their declared enemies through the use of this advanced form of weaponry, propelled forward by the drone industry boom. They, too, will draw fine legal distinctions between targeted killing (which they do) and assassination (which they do not). When the leaders of other nations begin to execute their avowed enemies using missile-equipped drones, they will invoke the very same rationalizations as their role model did: that by killing suspected terrorists they are preventing future harm to innocent people while circumventing the sacrifice of troops.

More than a decade has elapsed since the first publicly acknowledged use of a Predator drone to execute suspects located abroad, yet for several years very little sustained critique was aired. In the aftermath of the terrorist attacks of 11 September 2001, an exceptionally lax critical climate reigned in the United States. Accepting that ‘we are at war’, many newscasters deferred to the US president as concern with winning the ‘Global War on Terror’ (GWOT) gripped politicians, strategists and journalists alike. The populace docilely accepted libertyrestricting policies and legislation, such as the Patriot Act, under the assumption that certain sacrifices and compromises would be needed to keep the homeland safe. Many US citizens have rallied behind the government’s assiduous efforts to ‘take the battle to the enemy’, and appear to believe that the low number of jihadist attacks on domestic soil in recent years illustrates the effectiveness of the government’s many antiterrorism initiatives. That many more civilians have been victimized in these various efforts than were killed on 11 September 2001 has generally been ignored.

As the drone program has continued to grow, encompassing a larger and larger swath of territory in the Middle East, and seeping deeper and deeper into Africa, vociferous critics have slowly begun to emerge. Medea Benjamin, co-founder of the antiwar group CODEPINK, has staged a number of protests and even accessed a US presidential foreign policy address on 23 May 2013, during which she interrupted President Obama to lodge a variety of complaints. Among other things, Benjamin called for the release of the prisoners at Guantánamo Bay and demanded an apology to the ‘thousands of Muslims’ killed by drones ‘on the basis of suspicious activities’. The activist was escorted out of the room, but not before the president pensively acknowledged, ‘The voice of that woman is worth paying attention to,’ revealing that even he recognizes, on some level, that there may be problems with his administration’s policies.

The practice of targeted killing is truly controversial, even more so than war itself, which in the past appeared to many (not all) military supporters to be subject to ‘rules’ set out centuries ago by the early just war theorists and later incorporated in modern protocols such as the Geneva Conventions and the Charter of the United Nations (1945). The refusal to offer the suspects targeted by drones the possibility of continued survival should they agree to renounce their stand is but one of the glaring ways in which what remote-control killers do today bears nearly no resemblance to what soldiers did in the past. While sitting before computer screens, drone operators snipe unwitting targets who may have no idea that they have been spied on for days, weeks, even months, and are about to be annihilated, stripped even of the right to surrender enshrined in orthodox military protocols forged over centuries.

The people who vehemently oppose the use of weaponized drones, the self-proclaimed anti-drone activists, see a rupture between past and present military practices. Last resort has become first resort. Courage has become cowardice. Black ops have become standard operating procedure. A former intelligence agency is now a killing machine. Service to country has become crass opportunism. Self-defense has become naked aggression. Guilt beyond a reasonable doubt has become possible future potential for guilt. Voices of dissent have been irrevocably silenced. Just war has become blind slaughter. Respect for the enemy has given way to dehumanization. Patriots have been replaced by mercenaries. Human rights have been eclipsed by concern with the protection of soldiers’ lives. The US war on terrorism is carried out using terrorist tactics. Wars of necessity have been replaced by everproliferating wars of choice.

Most disconcertingly of all, the United States of America, once arguably a beacon of hope to people around the globe, has become an eagle eye hovering above with extended claws, keen to ‘project power without projecting vulnerability’. That slick sound bite, frequently intoned by US military spokespersons as they vaunt the alleged virtues of drones, masks a deleterious truth. What the US establishment has failed to process in its endeavor to ‘project power without projecting vulnerability’ is that nothing in the world is uglier than a tyrant, and practices which violate ordinary people’s sense of fair play inspire anger and hatred, not respect. Public relations sound bites such as ‘taking the battle to the enemy’ may make Americans feel better about the actions of their government, but it is evident from interviews with bereft survivors on the ground that drones do not merely project power. They project terror, and induce fear and anxiety in precisely the manner of a cruel and capricious oppressor.

From the perspectives of some of the members of communities under siege, the hegemonic crimes alleged by Osama bin Laden and other Al-Qaeda leaders to have been the basis for the attacks on symbols of US power on 11 September 2001 have been repeated over and over again, with the toll of civilian casualties among Muslim communities mounting seemingly with no end in sight. The persons incensed at being subjected to the specter of drones lurking menacingly above their heads are sometimes persuaded to heed the call to jihad by groups such as Al-Qaeda and the Taliban. In this way, the use of UAVs to ‘project power without projecting vulnerability’ may prove in retrospect to have been an illusion, ultimately making the persons allegedly being protected more vulnerable than ever before.

Policy debates about drones have focussed on factual matters such as: What proportion of the people killed have been civilians? Is it onethird, or is it one-half? Or perhaps only 20 percent of the victims have been innocent of any wrongdoing. False dichotomies also abound, as in bold assertions that Hellfire missiles launched by Predator drones should be deployed because they are more precise and discriminate than Tomahawk missiles. If the proverbial ‘options on the table’ are either to use weaponized drones or to launch Tomahawk missiles, then drones naturally win the debate, assuming that the goal is to ‘take out’ an individual or small group as opposed to an entire village. However, by delving a bit deeper, beneath the superficial level of most discourse on this topic, the presumptions underlying policymakers’ adoption of intentional, premeditated homicide as a standard operating procedure can be identified and assessed.

Grave concerns have been aired by scholars about the use of weaponized drones, above all whether the United States is not violating international law, committing war crimes, and essentially shredding both the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (1948) and the Charter of the United Nations (1945) through a concerted and wide-ranging program of assassination of suspects. These are pressing questions, as are practical matters such as whether the drone program makes the citizens paying for it less, not more, safe and secure, by fomenting terrorist groups and inspiring people to sympathize with them or even to become active members themselves. Drones have surely been used to eliminate some terrorists, but critics maintain that they have created even more, and the statements of recently minted jihadists have corroborated this claim, for they explicitly cite the effects of previous drone strikes as the reason for their decision to attack.

When no soldier’s life is directly on the line, then killing by remote control cannot be literally construed as legitimate self-defense—certainly not on its face. Whether the United States has violated international law in some of the most controversial cases—particularly in nations where war was never formally waged, and there are no soldiers on the ground to protect—continues to be the subject of heated debate. What matters most at this point in history is that the world’s sole military superpower has paved the normative way forward with targeted killing by Predator drone, setting a precedent to be followed by the leaders of other states—allies and enemies alike.

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