Unfriendly Skies

Have We Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Drone?

Polls show that the vast majority of Americans do not want armed drones circling their own neighborhoods. Who could blame us for not wanting to be taken out by a killing machine operated by someone hunkered down thousands of miles away? Then again, maybe we haven’t given the precision and efficiency of drones enough thought.

According to Pir Zubair Shah, a former New York Times reporter now at the Council on Foreign Relations, a tribal leader living in Pakistan’s South Waziristan told him he’d rather have a drone destroy one room of his house than have a bomb or artillery strike demolish his whole village. From his experience, drones are the lesser of two or three evils.

Targeted killings by armed drones have become part of the U.S. counter-terrorism strategy. Though the war against Al Qaeda has been used to justify the use of drones, targeted killings lack a firm legal and ethical grounding in U.S. and international law. Nevertheless, their use by the United States is setting an important precedent, which should be getting more attention than it is.

Some have suggested that drones provide a great tactical advantage without really changing the ethical calculus of warfare. After all, they argue, in a war zone it makes no difference whether terrorists are killed with a bullet from a machine gun or a missile launched from a drone overhead. A dead terrorist is a dead terrorist.

In fact, the new technology does make a difference. Compared to boots on the ground, drones are cheap, durable, and they don’t complain. What’s more, the man or woman who actually pulls the trigger in a drone strike is thousands of miles away and therefore in no danger of being killed or injured. And there’s this plus: Drones will never require pensions or health-care benefits. That may be one reason the U.S. government has also come to think of drones as the lesser of many evils. So far, drones are estimated to have killed somewhere between 3,000 and 4,700 people—some of them terrorists, some not.

As the United States winds down military action in Afghanistan, the use of armed-drone strikes has become a Kabuki dance. In advance of the scheduled pullout in 2014, the Obama administration has been stretching the Bush-era “Authorized Use of Military Force” to include the deployment of drones for targeted killings beyond Afghanistan. In Yemen, drones have killed fourteen terrorists, including two American citizens, and they’ve killed an unknown number of militants in Somalia.

This pursuit of terrorists beyond Afghan borders may have an air of inevitability about it (especially since some of those targeted—though not all—are Al Qaeda affiliates), but the administration has come up short in answering a raft of constitutional and ethical questions. CIA Director John Brennan’s confirmation hearings raised the lid on some of these issues; Sen. Rand Paul’s personal filibuster in March advertised others. But most congressmen do not want to answer the hard questions or limit the use of armed drones any more than the administration does. Grandstanding members of Congress may clamor for more information about the details of targeting decisions, but their goal is to embarrass the president, not to clarify the policy. And it is they who have put a premium on targeted killings by thwarting administration efforts to implement a judicial regime for charging and trying captured terrorists in U.S. courts.

In his filibuster, Sen. Paul asked whether the U.S. government would ever use drones to attack Americans at home. But why stop with our government? What happens when terrorists, criminals, and rogue states begin to wreak havoc on their enemies and rivals with armed drones? Both the Administration and Congress seem content to disregard such questions, but it won’t be long before other state and non-state actors are able to build and use drones, even if, for the foreseeable future, theirs will be less sophisticated than ours.

Perhaps, in the spirit of Stanley Kubrick’s 1964 movie Dr. Strangelove, the country will just stop worrying about the implications and learn to love armed drones. Who knows? Like the Pakistani elder in South Waziristan, we may even come to appreciate the value of having just one room of our house blown up rather than the whole neighborhood.

Published in the 2013-05-03 issue: 

Margaret O'Brien Steinfels, a former editor of Commonweal, writes frequently in these pages.

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