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.

Michael Peppard is associate professor of theology at Fordham University and on the staff of its Curran Center for American Catholic Studies. He is the author of The World's Oldest Church and The Son of God in the Roman World, and on Twitter @MichaelPeppard. He is a contributing editor to Commonweal.

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