Friday, February 8, 2013

“Wherefore Art Thou, Drones?”

Sydney M. Williams

Thought of the Day
“Wherefore Art Thou, Drones?”
February 8, 2013

Wars have infamously produced new killing technologies. The Civil War produced the Gatling gun, the forerunner to the modern machine gun. The tank emerged from World War I, the war that saw the last cavalry charge. The nuclear bomb came out of World War II, and to this day instills fears when placed in the wrong hands. And from the War on Terror has come the drone, a riskless and seemingly sanitized instrument of death. The longer civilization extends, the more efficient we become at killing one another.

The War Powers Resolution of 1973 was an attempt by Congress to limit the power of the President to take military action without Congressional approval, yet was ignored by President Reagan in 1981 when he sent troops to El Salvador and by President Clinton in 1999, with the bombing campaign over Kosovo. On September 14, 2001, Congress acknowledged that the President had broad powers to take action in response to the terrorists attack three days earlier. Included in the preamble are the words: “The President may deploy military forces preemptively against terrorist organizations or the states that harbor them, whether or not they can be linked to the specific terrorist incidents of September 11.” In testimony yesterday, John Brennan, Mr. Obama’s candidate for CIA Director, said that the 2001 Congressional Authorization for use of military force “does not contain a geographical limitation.”

The Congressional hearings for John Brennan, President Obama’s candidate for CIA Director, along with the reporting by NBC News of an unsigned and undated Justice Department “white paper,” have raised concerns about the increased use of drones to kill our enemies, as well as the secrecy surrounding the program. As yesterday’s lead editorial in the Wall Street Journal put it, “President Obama has been lucky in many ways. But no more so than not having a Senator Obama to assail his use of Presidential war powers.”

The debate is over the use of a weapon, which has largely been kept secret and yet one that has killed between 3000 and 4500 people (including “well over 200 children”, according to Mary Ellen O’Connell, a professor of law at the University of Notre Dame, writing in Thursday’s New York Times.) Presidents have long used war as an excuse to curtail civil liberties. During the Civil War, the writ of Habeas Corpus was suspended by Lincoln, allowing the Administration to detain indefinitely anyone they considered to be a risk. World War I saw the creation of the Censorship Board in 1917, along with the passage of the Sedition Act and the Alien Act in 1918. Seventy thousand Japanese-Americans, almost all from the West Coast, were interned in camps during World War II.

John Lewis Gaddis, a Yale historian and author of Surprise, Security and the American Experience, described America’s policy in the fight against terrorism: unilateralism, preemption and hegemony. It was the policy of the Bush Administration and has been kept largely intact by the Obama Administration. Drones were first used in 2002, but their usage ramped up over the past four years. Lev Grossman, writing for Time, notes that the Pentagon has 7500 drones in its fleet, up from 50 a decade ago. “More than a third of the aircraft in the Air Force’s fleet are now unmanned,” he wrote. The U.S. military reported carrying out 447 drone attacks in Afghanistan in the first eleven months of 2012. On Inauguration Day, a drone attack was carried out in Yemen. Enemies (and civilians) have been killed in three countries: Afghanistan, Pakistan and Yemen. Among those killed was the American citizen, Anwar al-Awlaki, a terrorist living in Yemen. He was killed, along with his 16-year old son, in October 2011. Robert Gibbs, then White House press secretary commented somewhat callously, on the death of the boy: “He should have had a more responsible father.” If we could only choose our parents!

There are an estimated forty countries attempting to get drones, so the precedent set by the United States will have worldwide ramifications. We must consider the consequences of sending drones to kill an alleged terrorist into a country that may be an ally. What would be our reaction, for example, should Canada or Mexico send a drone into the U.S. to kill a terrorist threatening them, especially when there is always some collateral damage? It is no wonder that the New York Times quoted retired General Stanley McChrystal as warning that drone strikes are so resented abroad that their overuse could jeopardize America’s broader objectives.

In his piece “Drone Home” for Time, Lev Grossman wrote, “Having transformed war, drones are getting ready to transform peace.” There will be myriad legitimate users – border control, police departments, weather forecasters, farmers, conservationists, Hollywood, cartographers, hobbyists, builders and parents to track children. But there will also be criminals who will be able to use them for surveillance. They will become ubiquitous, allowing neighbor to spy upon neighbor and spouse to watch over wandering mates. Who will store the data they collect? Who will own it? Will it be for sale?

As an instrument for killing, drones challenge conventional morality. Deaths are antiseptic to the perpetrator, as he or she has no need to be in the vicinity; they can only see what has been done through the lens of a camera. There is a remoteness and a safety to their methods that allows the killing of one’s enemies to be done without emotion and probably more easily. The confidential Justice Department ‘white paper” states that the decision to kill can be made by an “informed, high-level” official of the government. How many people does that description encompass? Are our Twentieth Century moral codes capable of adjusting to this new technology that may be evolving faster than our ability to comprehend and cope?

When Juliet calls out, “O Romeo, Romeo! wherefore art thou, Romeo?”, she is not asking where Romeo is. She is upset that the young man she loves carries the name of Montague, a family inimical to her own. Why, she wants to know, should she have fallen in love with one that will only be hers in death? The same question might be asked about drones. What is it about nature that allows our intellectual growth to exceed our ability to understand the ethical and moral consequences of what we have created? Why is it that, as civilization advances, we continually create weapons that make us less civilized? An increased use of drones, whether for target killings abroad or surveillance at home, means that we will all have to put more trust in our government. Are we willing to do that? Is this not a slippery slope down which we are sliding toward “big brother?” Can we trust those in Washington to make such life and death decisions? And, why wasn’t a drone deployed to take out terrorists that September 11th night in Benghazi?

Drones, it seems to me, have created more questions than answers. Nevertheless, they are surely here to stay.

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