Over the last decade, as US drone attacks have expanded to several countries, major human rights organisations have abjured from taking a clear position on the bombings instead demanding more disclosure from the US government so that legal questions can be addressed.
The interesting point about whether drone attacks are legal or not is why we ask this question at all. It is as if we had all implicitly agreed that resolving intricate legal puzzles around drone warfare will naturally settle the more onerous moral quandary about taking life.
Law or morality?
The difference between law and morality is evident in domestic politics. Take the case of George Zimmerman. While many progressives have conceded that it may be difficult to prove that Zimmerman violated Florida's Stand Your Ground law, that does not lead them to conclude that murdering Trayvon Martin was moral.
Yet, mainstream media and analysts jettison that crucial distinction between law and morality when it comes to US militarism. Whether explicitly or implicitly, the legal question underwrites a host of narrative manoeuvres including the categorisation of the dead into "civilians" and "militants" and an almost exclusive focus on transparency and disclosure. These are critical questions. But, when the media uses them as the dominant frame through which to understand US militarism, it renders siginificant political issues invisible.
In what passes for "serious" conversation in staid halls and gray columns, it is considered almost puerile to wonder on what moral authority the US has taken to occupying and policing the world. We cannot think unless we think in legal categories, it seems, a disturbing sign of a shriveled political imagination.
Consider General Stanley McChrystal's latest comments in which he cautioned against over use of drones even as he called them "effective tools". This candid assessment is only the latest in a string of statements McChrystal has issued since at least 2012.
Coming from a general whose tenure as the head of US Special Operations Command was marked by a sharp escalation of drone attacks on Afghanistan, the comments have reverberated through the media. He has been called a critic of drone policy, even an unlikely opponent. His simultaneous call to increase the use of drones, coupled with his admonishing remarks about such warfare, have been called a "complicated love affair with drones".
Yet, McChrystal's comments signify neither correction nor discomfiture with the policies he helped promulgate. They are, rather, the entirely predictable result of an intelligent military general who is making a considered strategic evaluation: Winning a war is made harder by killing or seeming to kill willy-nilly because it provokes a backlash.
As the Israeli scholar, Eyal Weizman has observed, the minimisation of violence is, therefore, both a humanitarian demand and good military strategy. The censorious postures of humanitarian law towards what it deems excessive force in specific incidents work to calibrate an overall acceptable level of violence. Weizman has called this state of affairs, "the humanitarian present".
In this humanitarian present, the law is a lousy proxy for politics or moral arbitration. Many lawyers understand this better than anyone else. But when a capacious political conversation is lacking, the more conservative aspects of the law come to frame our understanding of this issue, and, consequently, the media misreads calls for efficient war practices as anti-war critiques.
It makes a fetish of counting and categorising to the exclusion of other questions that may trouble these categories, that may even dare to ask political and moral questions about the nature and violence of US militarism.
Can drones be used for good?
Last fall, I watched Michael Toscano deliver a stellar performance. Toscano is the president of AUVSI, the largest drone lobby group in the country. Pacing back and forth on a stage at the Drones and Aerial Robotics Conference where I also presented, Toscano talked about how 80 percent of people, who had been shown images of various kinds of drones, had associated the word "drone" mainly with the image of a Predator loaded with a Hellfire missile. The drone lobby has been trying to rid itself of this image.For Toscano, the coruscating brilliance of the audience - drone hobbyists, entrepreneurs, military-affiliated people, academics and journalists - resided in the fact that they, like him, understood that drones are simply tools that can be used for moral or immoral ends.
Toscano proceeded to discuss aerial robots for "precision agriculture", for "situational awareness" in places that are "too dirty, dangerous or difficult", and for the protection of elephants or rhinos who are being killed by "tribes".
As he spoke, images sprang up on the slideshow of an African in "tribal" garb holding a cell phone, cuddling rhinos, a photo-shopped mock-up of a Red Cross drone delivering supplies to a rough-hewn hut. The talk coupled with the photos was illuminating. It provides one clue about the world that such lobbyists imagine. In this world, images of dark-hued "natives" often stand in as the paradigmatic hapless, helpless figure who needs (white) saving.
In this world, problems have no historical or political substrate, as if hunger were merely an issue of a dearth of food rather than structural inequality, or elephant poaching merely a consequence of savage tribes rather than a global trade involving a host of interests.
The drone lobby recognises it's got an image problem. As the communications representative of Northrop Grumman's Global Hawk drone division put it bluntly to The Verge last August, "If we publicise a bit more the nontraditional uses, it might change some perceptions."
The defence drone industry promotes this techno-utopia because that's what sells at conferences. The occasion for the comment by Northrop's representative was NASA's launch of the Global Hawk to track hurricanes off the coast of Africa: "I know our unmanned aircraft have been used largely for war-fighting and combat purposes, but they've also been used for humanitarian purposes and for research by NASA."
Northrop was suggesting a re-tooling of the drone from weapon of war to a humanitarian technology. But, while the company publicised this mutation, it was also fighting lawmakers who had proposed to halt buying more Global Hawks by the US military in the wake of defence budget cuts.
The corporation spent over $9m in lobbying the Armed Services Committee whose chairman, Howard "Buck" McKeon, also serves the Palmdale congressional district where Northrop's Global Hawk assembly plant is located. McKeon heads the Congressional Caucus for Unmanned Aerial Vehicles, a 50-membergroup that is the drone lobby's direct line to Congress. Unsurprisingly, by September, the government relented, signing a $114m order for more Global Hawks.
Some may claim that the Hawk's rehabilitation as a tool for NASA proves the thesis the drones are just that: a tool. Yet, it is a tool that has been funded, developed and deployed for war, a tool for which Iraq and Afghanistan served as experimental labs and its people as experimental bodies.
That war technology can have incidental uses beyond the war-making enterprise does not in itself justify the funding or development of technologies whose core mission and market is war. Imagining that the Global Hawk is "just a tool" creates historical amnesia about the Hawk's inextricability from war.
Its main function is to marshal public support for funding a technology whose most significant buyer is the military. Northrop Grumman is a top "diamond" level member of AUVSI along with General Atomics (Predator and Reaper drones), Lockheed Martin, Boeing and others who havespent millions lobbying.
Contesting the drone-tool thesis?
The congressional drone caucus received nearly $8m in campaign contributions from the lobby as well as individuals, according to a 2012 study by the Center for Responsive Politics and Hearst Newspapers.
The drone-tool thesis is, thus, one way to obfuscate and create a shared ground with drone hobbyists - the tech-savvy teen tinkerer or the entrepreneur who uses small aerial robots to fly beer to ice fisherman. It creates confusion over the term "drone" which serves the defence drone industry's effort to rebrand itself.
For instance, scholar Christina Dunbar-Hester has pointed out that at least some drone hobbyists have accepted the terms of the military industry by explaining the difference between hobby versions and military drones as merely a matter of scale.
Since all drones are "just a tool" the implicit logic goes, there is no qualitative difference between a Predator and musical quadcopters or bird's eye view robots or delivery drones. There can hardly be a better publicity coup for the defence drone lobby than to pass off drone hobbyists as the public face of the "drone".
People within the entrepreneurial, hacker and hobby drone culture appears less interested in reflecting on the inextricability of technology and society. The hobby culture seems to be dominated by white males who generally don't come from the marginalised, poor (and largely, non-white) communities who suffer the substantial effects of the future this culture is helping call into being.
There is no lobby for drone victims, or un-documented migrants surveilled by drones at the US-Mexico border.
Like Toscano, this drone culture laments that outsiders confuse "drones" for Predators; the entrepreneurs and hobbyists want to say that they have nothing to do with that. But, here's the problem: When you claim that the only difference between your work and their work is a matter of size, when you collaborate and have conferences in which you consort with the defence industry lending them credibility, it makes you appear either incredibly daft or callously self-interested, but certainly not independent.
Instead of caviling about "drones" and how outsiders don't get it, the hobby culture should declare a collective refusal. Acknowledge the structural inequalities in which you work. Refuse the claim that technology and politics are separate. Or, if you are going to shill for the industry, at least make sure to be paid handsomely for it.