Asking Hard Questions about Drones

Questions on Drones, Unanswered Still -

Thinking about the moral and ethical questions surrounding drones, a “game-changer in national security,” such as limitations, humanitarian law, legal responsibilities, deception, and broader impacts. Academicsphilosophers and others begin to weigh in, and here the NYT Public Editor explains the main issues this way:

On Sunday, Ms. Shah’s organization will release a report that raises important questions about media accuracy on drone strikes. But accuracy is only one of the concerns that have been raised about coverage of the issue.

“It’s very narrow,” said David Rohde, a columnist for Reuters who was kidnapped by the Taliban in 2008 when he was a Times reporter. “What’s missing is the human cost and the big strategic picture.”

Glenn Greenwald, a lawyer who has written extensively on this subject for Salon and now for The Guardian, told me he sees “a Western media aversion to focusing on the victims of U.S. militarism. As long as you keep the victims dehumanized it’s somehow all right.”

Mr. Rohde raised another objection: “If a Republican president had been carrying out this many drone strikes in such a secretive way, it would get much more scrutiny,” he said. Scott Shane, the Times reporter, finds the topic knotty and the secrecy hard to penetrate. “This is a category of public yet classified information,” he told me. “It’s impossible to keep the strikes themselves secret, but you’ve never had a serious public debate by Congress on it.” Last month, ProPublica admirably framed the issue in an article titled “How the Government Talks About a Drone Problem It Won’t Acknowledge Exists.”

As for the human cost, Sarah Knuckey, a veteran human rights investigator now at New York University School of Law, says she got a strong sense of everyday fear while spending 10 days in Pakistan last spring.

via Questions on Drones, Unanswered Still –

There is a case to be made for drones, however.  Scott Shane explains how “moral philosophers, political scientists and weapons specialists believe armed, unmanned aircraft offer marked moral advantages over almost any other tool of warfare.”


12 thoughts on “Asking Hard Questions about Drones”

  1. It is understandable that people in Yemen and Pakistan are scared of the presence of drones in those areas, but they would be more vulnerable to Taliban and terrorist strikes without its presence as well.

    Using drones for terrorist strikes, not only brings down the political tension that might occur if manned fighters are entered into foreign airspace, but also makes the operation for safer for pilots who would otherwise would have to fly and drop a warhead.

  2. The Obama Administration is leading an advanced war against terrorism and the use of drones is one step in modernizing war strategy. While Bush used 50 drones during his terms, Obama has used 350 to date. Obama has also heightened the fight against cyberterrorism, pushing against Iran’s nuclear program. As Ankit previously stated, these steps which have been taken protect lives and ease political tension. While the US as undergone a postive transition of war technology, secrecy has hidden too much from the public.

    Obama has traveled close to the edge of constiutionality with the secrecy of his drone ussage. Although the current election has yet to discuss drones in-depth, Obama will have to report eventually. It will be interesting what emerges when someone asks why Congress and the public have been kept in the dark as to the current US actions against terrorism.

  3. Drones help advance the war on terror, but transparency legitimizes even the most covert operations. When something must be top secret, it’s ok, and important, to be openly honest about that. Open secrets and quiet agreements erode the efficacy of covert operations because it interferes with oversight and therefore, integrity.

    Aside from that, I say by all means, use the drones to their fullest extent, but don’t lose sight of the big picture. There’s more to the war on terror than just killing terrorist leaders, it includes unwavering support of democracy, ideals of freedom, and creating economic incentives as alternatives to terrorism, among other things. But by all means, let us use drones because they work at getting the bad guys while doing as little damage to the good guys and civilians as possible.

    For an Air Force Magazine perspective on civilian casualties, see this article. It is from 2009, but the same principles apply today:

    “The civilian deaths by air strike would end today if the Taliban and al Qaeda laid down their weapons. If NATO and the US went home, however, the killings at the terrorists’ hands would continue”

    Also, those people most affected by the Taliban, the residents of tribal areas in Pakistan, have a distinctly different reaction to the presence of drones, at least some of them. To learn more about how some residents of Waziristan have come to refer to drones as the “ababils (the holy swallows sent by God to avenge Abraha, the invader of the Khana Kaaba)” see this article:

  4. I do not like drones. It furthers the cold harden view of war. It creates a further separation of the killer and the target, which creates a dehumanizing effect on the person controlling the drone. It also makes those who are innocence as nothing more than people who got in the way. This has been our problem in the Middle East, we don’t understand how these things effect the people. For example, in the article “Why do they hate us” the author tells of a real family from Lebanon (I believe it’s Lebanon). Both were educated in the United States and felt no malice towards us. However, they were working in Libya when their apartment building was attacked by American helicopters a couple decades ago. Their little daughter was murdered by the American attack. Now, would any of those men flying those helicopters personally go and blow up a little girl? Of course not, but the distance and the power put them in a position to do evil, to attack civilian targets. Another example comes from a history professor of mine at BYU-ID. He is Austrian and his mother lived in Germany under the Nazis. Of course his family was oppressed by the regime but America was just as evil to them because of what we did in that war. We started trying to avoid civilians, then we targeted civilian factories to slow up German production, then we accidentally hit civilian neighborhoods and called it casualties of war, then we started wholesales firebombing of cities. As my Professor said, “No one would have joined the fight if they were told, ‘Hey go try to kill with flamethrowers, or go slaughter innocence people” but put someone in a plane with plenty of distance from the target and they are more willing to do evil. This has been proven in several studies that if you create a larger detachment between the sides then people start to lose their humanity. I understand that the drones have done a lot in the “War on Terror” but we will never win a war against terror if we entact terror to do it. We drop to their level and lose our humanity and our right to call ourselves right and terrorists wrong. I believe the TED talk about the Psychology of evil is fitting for this subject, to warn there are some graphic images from Abu Ghraib which the video warns on before it happens. If you do not wish to see those just skip about 2 to 3 minutes. The video is something that people should since it very important to the moral question of drones

  5. Drone strikes are a useful tool in fighting terrorism, but they should be done more transparently and more selectively. The number of drone strikes doubled in 2009 and again in 2010. These strikes, especially “signature” strikes which can be carried out by drone operators based on the behavior of those on the ground rather than from specific intelligence, have only increased resentment of the US in places such as Pakistan and Yemen. A poll mentioned in this article (,0) said that 73 percent of Pakistanis had an unfavorable view of the US, ten percent higher than in 2008. Drone strikes will not benefit us in the long run if we create more enemies and more resentment toward the US by overusing them.

  6. I agree with svanmaanen, while drone protect American and allied soliders from direct danger from engaging with the enemy, they may do more harm that good. Because drones have been used to target suspected “militants”–a vague definition–innocent civilians are too often the victims of allied drone strikes. And the tragedy doesn’t end there: friends and family of the victims, who were once neutral or our friends, become our enemies and the cycle continues.

    Wouldn’t it be interesting if instead of drone surveillance and attacks, we used schools and clean water to fight terrorism?

  7. During the recent election cycle I have heard over and over again about how America is a “beacon of hope” and the moral leader of the world. I find it very difficult to reconcile those words with the actions of American forces in Pakistan. How can America claim international leadership while pursing morally and legally murky strategies of terror and assassination in sovereign countries? Symbolic of this exceptional American arrogance was Mr. Romney’s comment during the debate last night that his foreign policy strategy is to “go after the bad guy’s…to kill them”. If only reality were that simple.

    For information about the “human cost” of drones strikes in Pakistan, refer to independent journalist Amy Goodman’s report:

    Of particular interest in this report is the atmosphere of terror and hatred that the drones strikes have caused in Pakistan, as well as the message about international law that drone strikes sends to other countries (including Iran).

  8. I read a very interesting article about drones and President Obama’s strategy in the War on Terrorism that really opened my mind. I feel like the article has a very well balanced perspective and is helpful to anyone who is trying to weigh the usefulness and impact of drones.

    Honestly and simply, I believe the President is just doing his best to protect America with the tools that he has. He may be trading a little bit of soft power for some hard power, but the result has been significant. Many of the world’s most influential terrorist leaders are dead, and I feel safer under President Obama than I did under President Bush.

  9. I agree Michael Shields here. The use of drones is definitely a good thing because it keeps the pilots safe from being taken captive which causes a whole new set of problems for the military forces of the United States. As for the secrecy of them, I do not think it is a problem for the government to keep it a secret because, as was stated before, it could interfere with oversight which could come at huge costs. As for the drones being dehumanizing, what about the terrorists themselves who burn American bodies and hang them from bridges and kill them ruthlessly face to face with them. They are already dehumanized and will do whatever to kill an American. It is not right for us to be like them, but it is right to protect ourselves from them. If we can beat our enemies by strategy, i believe that we should. Especially if it means saving American lives. But i agree that we must not lose sight of the broader issue of democracy and freedoms which are the biggest issue here. The following is an article of how drones actually work.

  10. If you stop and think about how much technology has affected everyday life, transitions from print to electronic and GPS-enabled devices for directions and social information, the advances in military technology and weaponry must be equally, if not more, great. Even in the first World War, traditional means of battle, where armies line up and shoot each other, became ineffective as guns and weapons became more effective. With gas and chemical warfare, there were more and innovative ways to kill, leaving casualties at more devastating amounts than ever before. With military drones, suddenly, is the loss of risk. Warring nations can more easily send these planes off on destructive missions because the risk of sacrificing human life, since these planes are not manually controlled by people. The possibility of using robots in means of traditional warfare is more real than ever, though likely very far off. It makes me wonder, and fear, for the future of warfare, which is currently bloody enough.

    “The Future of Weapons: The Technology of War” (

  11. I personally think drones are great and that we should continue to use them. If we can successfully target international terrorists and enemies, and do so without risking American lives, then why not continue to use more and more drones? They save American lives. That’s the most important thing to me. I understand that sometimes there are inaccuracies and civilians are accidentally killed, and we should do everything to prevent this, but I think the benefits of using drones far outweigh any costs at this point. This CNN article notes that drones have become so accurate that hardly any civilians are killed these days. 19 terrorists were taking out by one drone earlier this year:

  12. It has been tested that drones are more accurate than humans; therefore, their deployment may effectively reduce unwanted casualties. I do not believe that drones are inethical so long as they are reducing the risks to not only American lives but also to the unwanted casualties within the vicinity of their intended targets. Drone strikes have already proven to be an effective means of taking out terrorist targets and should continue to do so.

    This website provides a useful history of all American drone strikes in Pakistan since 2004.

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