Rand Paul's 13 hour filibuster brought the question of domestic drone policy to the forefront of the American conscience, if only for a week or so. With the exception of a few dissenters, the nation concluded that granting the government the option to target US citizens on US soil, even hypothetically, was an unacceptable prospect, an assault on both the rule of law and moral sensibility. The Obama administration, after rebuffing Paul's probing inquiries for a month in the lead up to the filibuster, finally conceded that, no, the president does not have "the authority to use a weaponized drone to kill an American not engaged in combat on American soil." It was a victory for due process and the Constitution, and a victory against the growing encroachment of our pseudo-police state.
In making his case against domestic drone use, Paul highlighted current US drone policy abroad, asking if we wanted to bring such practices to our own shores. He said:
The Wall Street Journal reported and said that the bulk of the drone attacks are signature attacks. They don't even know the name of the person. A line or a caravan is going from a place where we think there are bad people to a place where we think they might commit harm and we kill the caravan, not the person. Is that the standard that we will now use in America? Will we use a standard for killing Americans to be that we thought you were bad, we thought you were coming from a meeting of bad people and you were in a line of traffic and so, therefore, you were fine for the killing? That is the standard we're using overseas. Is that the standard we're going to use here?
In my own treatment of this issue, let me be perfectly clear from the onset: drones, in and of themselves, are morally neutral. Similar to guns, pharmaceuticals, and yoga, there is nothing inherently evil about unmanned aerial vehicles equipped with lethal force. In fact, used properly, drones can yield legitimate advantages over what had previously constituted conventional methods. Given that they are unmanned, the use of drones removes the necessity of putting a pilot in harm's way. Furthermore, drones are widely considered to be more accurate and precise than are missile strikes originating from warships hundreds of miles away, minimizing collateral damage. And finally, given their ability to stay in areas of interest for considerably longer than conventional warplanes, drones increase the "window of opportunity" for identifying and eliminating threats. Clearly, the technological superiority of drones offers the potential for warfare that is more efficient and more just
However, the advantages inherent in drone technology have led to an immoral usage of drones. Overconfidence in drones' ability to carry out operations more efficiently, safely, and precisely than alternative means has increased the use of drone strikes far beyond the scope of targeting and eliminating threats that are both imminent and known. In short, because drones are so accurate and so effective, our government uses them to kill people it would have never before considered worth the effort-- people who, in most cases, aren't even confirmed enemy combatants; the moral weaknesses of current drone policy are derivative of the apparent strengths of drone technology.
As Senator Paul indicated, the modus operandi of the US drone program in Pakistan, Yemen, and Somalia is characterized by "signature attacks," a tactic the CIA also refers to as "crowd kills." These strikes entail acquiring targets not based on positive identifications, but on perceived "patterns of behavior" that allegedly correlate to militant or terrorist affiliation. Going beyond the already dubious boundaries of an administration approved "kill list," signature attacks are levied not primarily against operational leaders, but those who the administration considers the "foot soldiers" of organizations that pose a threat to U.S. security interests.
Of course, determining who is and who isn't affiliated with something as loosely defined as a terrorist cell or a militant group is a process that's hazy at best, and this is reflected in what little the general public knows about the administration's guidelines for signature attack targeting. Behavior such as "moving weapons" is considered an indicator of enemy combatant status , even in a country such as Yemen, where nearly everyone is armed. Even more telling is the State Department's criticism of the CIA's targeting tendencies, claiming that the rival agency seems to believe "three guys doing jumping jacks" constitutes a terrorist camp. The administration's methodology for tallying successful kills is just as suspect as the guidelines for targeting: all military-age males in a strike zone are considered combatants, assumed guilty and only exonerated if they are definitively proved to be innocent--posthumously, of course. This system of accounting promotes the disturbing notion that individuals in civilian areas, far removed from the battlefield of any conventional warfare, are "guilty by association," advancing the notion that it is morally permissible to "drone first" and ask questions later.
One must ask, if we didn't have drones at our disposal would we be killing as wantonly and aggressively as we are? If eliminating a Yemeni teenager who was merely suspected of running weapons for Al Qaeda put an American fighter pilot at risk, would we follow through? If a cruise missile strike on a cohort of lowly Taliban foot soldiers would invariably kill innocent bystanders, would it be worth it? In previous years, the inherent risks associated with these options created a natural barrier to action, a moment of pause where moral sobriety could come into play. As a result, there were far fewer remote strikes, attacks on non-engaged targets far removed from the field of battle.
What's changed in the past few years? It's hard to imagine that there are that many more imminent threats now, in 2013, than there were in the years leading up to or immediately after 9/11. So it is most likely not the case that the increase in remote strikes is due to a sudden surge of threats that previously had not existed (although, if this is the case, could there be a more compelling indictment of US foreign policy over the past decade?). Instead, the variable that has fundamentally changed is the method of carrying out such strikes. Drones, devoid of limitations, are intoxicating technological innovations that have convinced their handlers that they can do no evil. In reality, their usage has driven up both civilian casualties and suspect targeting, by increasing the frequency of strikes and by expanding the definition of who can be killed.
In making this argument, I am admittedly not relying on the administration's data nor its official kill lists. Indeed, such information is withheld from the public by a government that only formally acknowledged its drone program in 2012. I will advance my case, instead, by drawing a parallel between drone policy and the sexual revolution.
Similar to drone warfare, the combined oral contraceptive pill (henceforth referred to as "The Pill") was considered a technological triumph, a scientific advancement that would usher in a better world. Bank-rolled by Planned Parenthood founder Margraet Sanger and approved by the FDA in the 1960s, The Pill promised women freedom from the allegedly restrictive sexual norms of the day without the risk of conceiving out of wedlock. Although other forms of contraceptives were available and legal, The Pill was unprecedented in its ability to prevent pregnancy and also with regards to the ease with which one could utilize it.
The availability and effectiveness of The Pill ushered in an era of unprecedented sexual activity that fundamentally reshaped societal understandings of both sex and marriage. Sex was now primarily seen as an expression of love and a means of experiencing pleasure; it was divorced from its natural outcome, reproduction, and therefore could be sought after outside the secure context of a permanent relationship. There hadn't necessarily been a convincing argument for why traditional sexual norms were obsolete; The Pill and its promise of accurate and effective birth control simply rendered them moot for a wide swath of the population.
But while The Pill promised the elimination of sexual set-backs such as unwanted pregnancies and ensured women new access to education and employment, the negative externalities associated with it and the sexual revolution it helped kick-start are overwhelming: since the sexual revolution, out-of-wedlock births, sexually transmitted diseases, teen pregnancy, and divorce have all risen considerably; since the Sixties, marriage has declined by a third and divorce has doubled; during the 1960s there were only four widespread STDs, now there are twenty-four; the number of children living in single-parent families has tripled since the sexual revolution; and, perhaps most telling, female happiness in the Western world has declined sharply in the past 35 years despite women's liberated sexual status. While other factors have played a role in these developments, there is little denying the connection between the scientific potential of The Pill and the wholly unrestricted and unprecedented explosion of sexual promiscuity and its associated ills.
Recent news out of Sweden captures this phenomenon perfectly. Despite the fact that "more than twice as many morning-after pills were sold in 2012 than when the pill became available in 2001," abortion rates have increased to "20.9 per 1,000 women last year from 18.4 in 1997." The development has left Swedish politicians and doctors positively baffled, but the explanation is a simple one: a scientific innovation that makes a certain behavior easier and less risky creates a false sense of security, altering behavior beyond a threshold where the new science could be helpful and to the point where use of the innovation yields diminishing and even negative returns. This is the legacy of the sexual revolution at large, a societal shift that has created more problems than it's solved while exacerbating old ones.
This, too, is the narrative that the "drone revolution" seems set to follow. I've already highlighted the immediate immoralities of the current drone policy, characterized by relatively indiscriminate targeting and a heightened frequency of attacks. However, what is potentially even more alarming are the long-term, global trends for which current US drone policy is simply setting the stage. To start with, American drone policy abroad is extremely unpopular in the countries in which drones operate. In the words of General McChrystal, the former commander of US forces in Afghanistan, drones are "hated on a visceral level, even by people who've never seen one or seen the effects of one." The continued use of drones exacerbates "the perception of American arrogance that says, 'Well we can fly where we want, we can shoot where we want, because we can.' " Even with the noted efficient lethality of US drone strikes, one can't help but wonder if they're creating more enemies than they're eliminating. Not only is current drone policy immoral, but it's actually counter-productive.
Beyond American foreign policy concerns is the question of international precedent or "Washington’s deliberate failure to establish clear and demonstrable rules for itself that would at minimum create a globally relevant standard for delineating between legitimate and rogue uses of [drones]." As the rest of the world's countries develop their own drone programs, will they set defined limits on the use of the weaponry? Or will they follow America's example and utilize drones extra-legally and with a minimal threshold for lethal force? If the latter is the case, one can expect a whole host of disastrous consequences, from an increase in extraterritorial operations across sovereign borders to the exponential rise in targeted killings, justified by pointing the finger at America and saying "we learned from you." While the lack of self-imposed restrictions on drone usage now may be defended as necessary for waging the nebulous "war on terror," it is a precedent that will lead to a destabilized and more violent world.
The promises of drones, like those of The Pill, are fraught with unintended ramifications that dramatically outweigh any potential benefits the technology can offer. The aftermath of widespread birth control and the sexual revolution are present before our eyes, a testament to the disastrous results of allowing technological potential to have mastery over our behavior. It's important to remember who successfully predicted the fall-out from the sexual revolution—and who should inform our understanding of drones, their limits, and just war.
Join as a member now and get a free copy of The Essential Ethika Politika.
Plus, help make EP accessible for thousands of readers every day. And receive inbox updates, get access to members-only content, and interact with other EP readers and authors!
One fine body…