Drones are the lesser of two evils? Really?

My friend and member of Shalom House, Candace McKinley, wrote a brilliant response on a list serve we mutually read. Someone was defending drones as the lesser of two evils and being sympathehetic about the imagined plight of the president who was making hard decisions. I thought her reply was so great I asked her if I could repost it. She said yes.

I do not think that is accurate to describe drone warfare as the lesser of two evils as if there are only two choices for action. What about relying on traditional intelligence gathering? What about trials? Or even working on rectifying the causes of terrorism–reversing US policies that have propped up dictators, destabilized legitimate governments, built military bases all over the world, and harmed local economies? Perhaps instead of striking out blindly in fear and in hate after 9-11, our government could have instead acted rationally: gathered intelligence on who perpetrated 9-11 and why; changed our policies; gone to the international community; answered the question of “Why do ‘they’ hate us?” honestly and not with the pointless lie of “Because they hate our freedom.”

Targeted killings using drones are problematic for many reasons. Legally, there is the issue of violating another country’s sovereignty, attacking other countries without a formal declaration of war, assassinating individuals without trial, killing US citizens without due process. But there is also a deep moral issue.

[Our friend] makes a good point. Imagine if we were on the receiving end of another country’s drone program. What if Venezuela decided to make targeted strikes against American citizens who they believed were actively involved in terrorist acts against their country that endangered the lives of its citizens and aimed to destabilize and overthrow their government? Their “accurate” drone strikes result in massive harm to personal property of civilians and collateral damage–the loss of life to civilians, including many women and children. Imagine attending a wedding to celebrate the union of two of your family members along with 150 friends and family members. It a celebration on Lemon Hill in Fairmount Park. The wedding reception is cut short when a drone opens fire on the crowd, killing most of the 150 guests. Seeing the explosion, bystanders and ambulances race to the scene to aid the victims. Another round of bombing greets the rescuers.

Venezuela thought the gathering was suspicious and had some intelligence that an American agent known to be involved in the planning of anti-Venezuelan government attacks might be in attendance. Soon, people no longer attend block parties, outdoor concerts, dragon boat races on the river, street fairs or large farmers markets for fear of drone attacks. You don’t want to look suspicious.

You go out to the grocery store to pick up some milk and eggs for breakfast the one day. You return home a half hour later to find your house in flames. Your home destroyed by a drone attack. Pieces of your spouse and children scattered among the burning wreckage. Your home happened to be next door to the home of a man suspected of donating to an anti-Venezuelan cell.

The above two scenarios may seem overly dramatic, but they are the reality for too many people living in Pakistan and other countries where the US engages in drone warfare. Over 4,700 people have been killed by US drones. Also, the idea that other nations could use drones–armed or unarmed–against the US is not so farfetched. The US no longer has the monopoly on drones. Israel is the largest drone exporter and China is into the business of drones as well. Again we reap the whirlwind.

This Saturday, Shalom House members attended a talk by Medea Benjamin, co-founder of CODE Pink in Bethlehem, PA. She spoke about drone warfare and CODE Pink’s efforts. Around the room was a string of names and ages written in careful black script noting over 100 Pakistani children killed by drone strikes. Listening to her tell us about CODE Pink’s recent delegation to Pakistan and the stories told by those living under drone warfare, I couldn’t help but imagine myself in their shoes. What would it be like to live in constant terror? To have your community torn asunder? To feel powerless to stop the killings or to even have your story heard? To be on the receiving end of the capricious vengeance and violence of a country thousands of miles away who feels that it has the right to bomb you and your family? To be given no justification or explanation for the attack beyond lip service?

I think the moral question of drone warfare, in deed of all warfare, can be answered in one line: Do to others as you would have them do to you. And for us who are Christ followers: Love one another. Even more so, love your enemies.

I don’t think it is too much to ask our governments to do the same or to hold them to the same standard. Governments are going to act in what they perceive is their best interest without us making excuses for their actions. Especially since we live in a democracy where our votes and voices are supposed to have meaning, why not demand that our government not kill in our name?

During the month of April, there are going to be a number of protests, forums and actions around drones. On April 13 there will be a big rally and march in DC organized by ANSWER and on April 26-28, there will be a forum, protest and rally in Syracuse, NY at a drone base. I’ll share a calendar of local and regional forums and actions later this week.

Below are some links to some resources about drones. Check them out for more information about the US drone program.
Drones Watch: A Coalition Campaign to Monitor and Regulate Drone Use
Infographic: Drone Strikes under Obama
Bureau of Investigative Journalism: Covert Drone War

I add an article about drone support in our own back yard.
Horsham command center for drones wins support.

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One thought on “Drones are the lesser of two evils? Really?

  1. I am going to take the controversial pro-drone position, with some very serious caveats that I hope will be apparent as you read.

    Candace’s response is thoughtful and I am not so much taking issue with it as addressing some points that she made. That said, would also be helpful to have link or quote of the post she was responding to in order to see what she was addressing and whether that argument also held merit.

    I think the arguments and debate and furor around drone technology is misdirected. Candace mentions toward the end of her response “I think the moral question of drone warfare, indeed of all warfare, can be answered in one line: Do to others as you would have them do to you” Candace, in that line, disentangles the morality of drones from the larger question of the morality of warfare. My concern though, is that all of the discussion about a specific technology confuses the point and distracts from larger questions of liberty, security, privacy, due process and foreign policy.

    “I do not think that is accurate to describe drone warfare as the lesser of two evils as if there are only two choices for action. What about relying on traditional intelligence gathering? What about trials? Or even working on rectifying the causes of terrorism–reversing US policies that have propped up dictators, destabilized legitimate governments, built military bases all over the world, and harmed local economies?”

    I agree, that it is inaccurate to describe drone warfare as the lesser of two evils… because warfare and military aggression are a single issue; drones are a technological and strategic development that does not significantly change the nature of warfare in a meaningful way. They do not create new capabilities, they perform the same functions as a piloted aircraft, but they do it cheaper and with less risk of life and limb. If we want to get rid of flying missile platforms, that is a legitimate political argument, but we shouldn’t worry about whether killing machines are honorable based on whether the pilot has skin in the game. We should be thankful that one less person is at risk in a dangerous confrontation.

    When it comes to intelligence gathering, drones do not add anything new to the government’s toolbox. All of the intelligence functions of drones are carry-overs from older technologies. Aerial photography from both piloted craft (since before WWI) and satellites (since roughly the 1960’s) produce archival records of landscapes. What drones do allow for in terms of intelligence work is the safe collection of low and high altitude aerial imagery for archival purposes and real-time aerial monitoring (an activity previously accomplished through the use of helicopters). The work that drones do in the intelligence field is not a new function and is very much a part of traditional intelligence gathering. The idea of relying on “traditional” intelligence gathering also touches on the notion that intelligence gathering is a clean, unbiased and well-operated mechanism for preparation of the battlefield (POB). Drones made no appearance in the intelligence leading up to the declaration of the Iraq war, and that intelligence failure has certainly been a more egregious in terms of cost of life. The intelligence process, as it is, is a remarkably inefficient and skewed process that contributes to poor decision making that is made immune to impartial scrutiny due to the often unnecessary and arbitrary use of intelligence classification systems to protect against third-party oversight. It is also heavily influenced by a hierarchical confirmation bias, in which analysts are encouraged to confirm the suspicions of their superiors by interpreting their particular piece of the intelligence puzzle through the prism of designated intelligence requirements. This problem is compounded by the often false assumption that higher echelons of authority possess superior knowledge or understanding of the intelligence terrain. Before suggesting that we rely on traditional intelligence collection, we should recognize the faults of that system. Being upset about drones and how they are used does not address whether the process of gathering and processing intelligence is “good” or “effective”.

    To this point: I would suggest making government transparency and a reassessment of secret classifications a higher priority than any one collection platform. Likewise we should ensure that all existing laws protecting our privacy and the circumstances governing the violation of the privacy of non-Americans be enforced and updated to represent the technologies being utilized and exploited. Being upset about drones used for surveillance and imagery collection is like being upset about the government using antennas for wiretapping. The problem isn’t the tool, it’s the activity.

    As a former Signals Intelligence Analyst, I can tell you that the vast majority of people working in that field are extremely conscious of respecting the privacy of American citizens, and there are severe legal and professional penalties built into the system to ensure compliance. I would encourage everyone to familiarize themselves with legal ideas of reasonable expectation of privacy and specific legislation and policy that safeguard our rights. Take USSID-18 (United States Signals Intelligence Directive) for an example of how these notions of privacy translate into meaningful legal protections:


    You might also note if you scan that document, the number of redacted lines. The lines are likely redacted because they refer to particular collection platforms and methods. That said, it’s comforting to know a document is in place protecting your privacy… but shouldn’t something like that be freely available to the person being protected? It’s hard to know your legal rights when the information is unavailable. I mean, if you have secret rights, might there not also be secret exceptions? We should demand transparency instead of trying to ground the proverbial black helicopters.

    A lot has been said about the dehumanizing aspect of drones. People seem to think that flying a drone is like playing a video game and that the lives on the other end are somehow devalued by the distance of the pilot. Those lives are devalued by warfare, not the proximity of the pilot. The video of the helicopter engagement released by Wikileaks three years ago demonstrates the level of human respect accorded in warfare…


    In my experience working with drones and drone pilots, I would suggest that drone operations are more democratic than traditional piloted aircraft because the piloting crew (dividing operation aspects, such as flying and camera operations) is co-located with the decision makers. Likewise, with the pilot’s safety guaranteed the decision making process is not informed by a sense of danger, self-preservation or the excess adrenaline from the excitement of flying. In those operational environments, cooler heads might prevail. Likewise, I understand that without a sense of risk, there is an inclination to use the technology more often than more traditional methods.

    To this point: we should be focused on curbing the military industrial complex and demanding decision making based on necessity, not capability. Both in terms of using this technology and purchasing it. The United States spends more than $700 billion a year on Defense, we should be tackling that. The government has already embraced drone technology, as proponents of peace we should recognize that they are unlikely to abandon its use… but we should use the introduction of cheaper technologies to justify reapportionment of the budget away from military use and towards more socially profitable programs. Let’s say that $20 million aircraft can pay for 40 drones, we need to argue that instead of matching that price, we should match the capability of the aircraft. If a single drone (or even two or three) can match the capabilities of a piloted jet, then we should demand the remainder of that money for funding more humane government functions.

    I don’t take issue with anything else in Candace’s writing. America’s hypocrisy in its dealings with other nations’ sovereignty should be a great source of distress for its citizens. Likewise, the loss of any life should register as tragic to the public. But we need to focus on changing the culture of jingoism and “because we can” thinking that leads to abuses of power in the name of an uninformed electorate, not specific technologies.

    By reacting to the specific technology, instead of a culture of secrecy, abuse and incompetence, we could inadvertently cripple non-military applications of a promising technology. The use of drones for Low-Level Aerial Photography can potentially revolutionize land management, urban planning, disaster response, mapping, navigation, search and rescue and more by introducing cheaper, safer, more environmentally friendly (a large drone has an engine roughly equal to a snowmobile) collection platforms. Some local governments have passed ordinances barring the use of drones in their airspace, considering only their military and espionage applications and overlooking their potential civilian uses.

    Instead of throwing the swords away, turn them into plowshares. And find ways to reduce the need for swords.

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