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Keeping drones in the dock

When editors and contributors from Commonweal, America, and First Things agree about an issue in American politics, we should take note. On the questionable role of drone warfare in Catholic just war teaching, America's leading Catholic thinkers do seem to agree: the expanded use of drones in the Obama presidency is, at best, treading on very thin ice in the Catholic moral tradition. More likely, it is morally unjustifiable.

Robert George recently called attention to the issue at First Things and linked to his previous thoughts on the matter (from June 2012):

The use of drones is not, in my opinion, inherently immoral in otherwise justifiable military operations; but the risks of death and other grave harms to noncombatants are substantial and certainly complicate the picture for any policy maker who is serious about the moral requirements for the justified use of military force. Having a valid military target is in itself not a sufficient justification for the use of weapons such as predator drones.Sometimes considerations of justice to noncombatants forbid their use, even if thatmeans that graverisks must be endured by our own forces in the prosecution of a war.The wholesale and indiscriminate use of drones cannot be justified, and should be criticized. This is something that Catholic intellectuals across the spectrum ought, it seems tome, to agree about. If we dont speak, who will?

George is right that this should be a moral issue for Catholics. But he is not correct in saying that other Catholic intellectuals had been silent ("Too many liberals were more interested in protecting their man than in speaking truth to his power").

In fact, Commonweal addressed the issue in an editorial at the end of 2010 ("Mistargeted"), revisited it at the end of 2011 ("Below the Law?"), and strengthened their editorial stance at the end of 2012 ("Obama and Drones"). Yesterday Raymond Schroth, S.J., at America also offered a round-up of facts and criticism about the current strategy of drone warfare, highlighting Mary Ellen O'Connell's great piece from early 2010 ("Flying Blind"), which I have used in the classroom. Her legal work forms the basis of last week's op-ed in the New York Times about questions for John Brennan ("The Questions Brennan Can't Dodge").

At my own place of employment, Fordham University, there was also legitimate and reasoned criticism offered to John Brennan -- a distinguished alumnus -- upon his arrival last May to receive an honorary degree and speak at Commencement (covered on dotCommonweal too). Brennan agreed to meet with a delegation of representative faculty and hear concerns about the moral status of drone warfare. (I note that he also agreed to come back this year and continue the discussion -- I hope he can still do so as CIA director.)

But those of us trying to keep this issue alive -- whether in the news or in our classrooms -- face a difficult audience. As Raymond Schroth puts it:

The bad news, truly discouraging, is that a strong majority of the American people approve of the governments use of drones, even when their targets are American citizens living abroad. While the general figure is 65 percent, even among Democrats its a majority. The Sunday editorial page of New York Daily News cheered them on.This is particularly sad because this is a human life issue and our reverence for human life is supposed to separate democratic countries like our own from allegedly less moral regimes.

The statistics remind me of the National Religious Campaign Against Torture, which also faced some challenging public opinion polls about that other matter of ius in bello during the Bush presidency. But minds can be changed, as evidenced by the influence of essays, such as David Gushee's Christianity Today cover story, "5 Reasons Torture Is Always Wrong" (Feb 2006).

Catholics should be the ones leading this discussion in the public square. We have a deep just war tradition. We are known for our consistent ethic of life. We have a Catholic-educated official in John Brennan who has manifested serious reflection on these matters and would, we hope, continue to be open to the perspectives of our well-formed consciences.

One way we might do so is by focusing on specific cases. What about Tariq Aziz, who was a normal, concerned teenager driving his younger brother? Or recently, the killing of Salem Ahmed bin Ali Jaber, who from all accounts is exactly the kind of ally we needed on the ground? "Just the kind of leader most crucial to American efforts to eradicate Al Qaeda," according to the report. These specific cases are what draw me in to the complexity of contemporary ius in bello.

How were these mistakes made? Where was the intelligence failure? What were the consequences for that failure? Did we do anything for the families of the deceased boys? For a mistake that lethal and tragic, what were the consequences for the Americans who screwed up? Does this tragedy cause you to question the morality of drone warfare? Even apart from morality, is it strategically advisable? Does it make more enemies than it eliminates? Why has support for America plummeted in Pakistan to virtually zero in the Gallup poll released today?

Let's keep these questions alive. Mary Ellen O'Connell and the editors of our Catholic periodicals have led the way, but there is still a lot of public educating to be done. It's up to us to keep drones in the dock. This particular just war debate is far from over.

About the Author

Michael Peppard is associate professor of theology at Fordham University, author of The World's Oldest Church and The Son of God in the Roman World, and on Twitter @MichaelPeppard.



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And then there is this from the outgoing (and Catholic) Secretary of Defense:"Defense Secretary Leon Panetta is expected to announce Wednesday that for the first time the Pentagon is creating a medal that can be awarded to troops who have a direct impact on combat operations but do it from afar.The Associated Press has learned that the new blue, red and white-ribboned Distinguished Warfare Medal will be awarded to individuals for 'extraordinary achievement' related to a military operation that occurred after Sept. 11, 2001 when terrorists attacked the U.S. But unlike other combat medals, it does not require the recipient to risk his or her life to get it."

maybe the polls are misleading and drone warfare isn't as popular as supposed (polls/surveys can be wrong sometimes)When both the ACLU and the Tea Party oppose drone warfare, it's a little hard to believe the middle is ok with it.

Robert George noted some occasions on which using drones might be justifiable, and then he offered this: "The wholesale and indiscriminate use of drones cannot be justified." Oh, wow. The wholesale and indiscriminate use of anything --pancakes, for instance -- cannot be justified. Catholic thought has to do better. It has to start from what can't be done and then list exceptions, if any.I'd submit, for openers, that drones are weapons of war and cannot be used outside of a war. The GWOT never was a war; it was a bumper sticker when W. Bush signed off on it, and it remains a bumper sticker while Obama and Brennan invoke it. I, and the framers of the Constitution, would wish that war must be declared by Congress, but that pony got out of the barn decades ago. It is the one power that no one in Congress wants. So we have to live with the half-baked war resolutions we get. But even they have not authorized anything as far-ranging in time and space as what Obama/Brennan claim they can do with drones.

Following Tom: I agree: better explicit reasons are needed. A few preliminary thoughts:1. Myself, I think due process is a key issue, at least where American citizens are involved. The memo, e.g., is so broadly written that it would seem to include as legitimate targets anyone who MIGHT wish to do evil at some future date. It amounts to a policy of preventive assassination, at least as it's written. 2. Otherwise, we've implicitly stated that the War on Terror is a declared war without boundaries, in which "combatants" (hard to identify accurately in this kind of conflict) are vulnerable to being bombed anywhere. Including in the US. 3. After thousands of killings, we MUST have data to determine whether drones in fact reduce civilian casualties or are unacceptably indiscriminate. IN THEORY, one could keep a drone around for a long time waiting for the target to be alone--but clearly that's not working out so well. But how bad is it compared to, e.g., standard aerial warfare? 4. Some wonder whether just war requires it to be possible for a combatant to surrender. But your basic bombing run doesn't allow much in the way of surrender, either.5. I've heard concerns that the utter invulnerability of the drone operator is an issue, but I'm not convinced. If it were my kids in the military, I'd want to minimize risk to them. As the movie version of Patton observed to soldiers, "It's not your job to die for your country. It's your job to make the other S.O.B. die for his." And, again, is this different in kind or only in degree from aerial bombing runs?6. There absolutely must be transparency in the process of determining who are combatants, and therefore legitimate targets. Might this make the task of killing them harder? Yes. Should the president have the final say? I'm troubled by the sweeping power this gives him: what if some subsequent president should decide that a "War on the Green Party" or some such unjustifiable "enemy" gives him the power to decide to assassinate hapless Greens? At the same time, presidents are Commanders in Chief, and have the final say in military matters. Perhaps the first step is to make clear that this "war on terror" ends, and we begin approaching it like we should have from the start--not as a matter of war, but a matter of crime, in which a multinational force collaborates to establish processes to arrest, or perhaps to target, if transparent and accountable processes are in place, those who commit terrorist acts. Again, just first thoughts.

Given troubles in many parts of the world and "troublesome" people, why doesn't this policy apply not simply to soldiers and "terrorists," but to criminals and other borderline troublemakers, for example, the Shia protesters in Bahrain.What if a drone had located the rogue LA policeman, Christopher Dorner. Would the operator be authorized to kill him? Would the LA police dept. have been relieved to know that it's officers were safer with a drone kill than tracking him down? Doesn't seem so far-fetched though it sounds like a TV show. Or maybe it is!

Shouldn't the criteria for the moral use of drones (if there is such a thing) be at least very much like the criteria for war in the old, established sense of armies clashing to establish dominance or secure self-protection. Obviously drones are not armies, nor are they large, nor do they do *nearly as much damage* as armies. They are also particularly repulsive in a way that war is not because the "collateral damage" doesn't know they're coming, so they seem like extremely dirty pool. the sort of weapon the old ideal of a gentlemen wouldn't use any more than he'd cheat at cards. Seeming to be thuggish, they're demeaning on both sides.Perhaps the biggest difference between drones and clashing armies is that drones are/ are said to be *preventive* war. But, I ask, what is wrong with preventive measures? We might even say that, just as we do not disdain but encourage preventive medicine, so we should not disdain preventive war.But what is a preventive "war"? I think the term is very unfortunate because it does not mean a reality which is an actual war (see the definition above), but it means the opposite (almost?) of war. It would be better to call them "violent preventive actions".Another thing that should not mislead us, I think, is knowing that even if preventive actions are sometimes moral that they are very likely to be misused, and we should on *that* account never moral. Wars are often not justified but that alone done not make all wars unjustified.I suspect that the question will eventually boil down to how can collateral damage be justified? Or even: can collateral damage ever be justified? If s, what kind and when? There are also the questions of how leaders can be restrained from using such measures and how they can be held responsible. But those are peripheral questions, though important ones. This is such a nasty, complex, difficult issue I really really really don't want to think about it. I think that one of the reasons it is particularly difficult is because I suspect it will require us to look again at the old end-does-no-justify-the-means principle, and the moralists will fight fiercely to avoid that. Giving reasons why that particular principle should hold is particularly hard, and it is rarely if ever done so far as I know. But I"m not an expert on the subject, so I would really really really like to hear from the experts what their justifications are.

@Margaret: As it happens, the Alameda County Sheriff's office here in CA (which includes embattled Oakland,) is proposing to buy a drone for observation purposes. The proposal specifically states that it will not be equipped with weapons. Still, perhaps that will prove a first step toward use of armed drones. Public hearings will be held tonight...

Lisa,Shades of 1984. Privacy is almost totally dead.

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