Making sense of debate over drones

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Illustration: MC

I am not entirely sure if I understand the substance of the current controversy over targeted killings using drones and the danger that it may be used against American citizens inside America.

It seems to me that the technology of killing is being confused with the target of killing. Why is drone killing at its core any different from killing someone using a gun? The distinction could not possibly be arising because of the difference in the levels of sophistication of the two technologies. Nor could it arise out of the kind of ammunition used or the distance that the ammo has to travel before fatally landing on the target. Bullets in the case of guns and Hellfire missiles in the case of drones. A few meters in the case of guns and a few miles in the case of drones. Merely because the shooters in the two scenarios are differently armed and separated from their target by a varying distance does not make one more acceptable or unacceptable over the other. Those are all details extraneous to the main issue.

Of course, one understands that the debate is about whether the president of the United States and those whom he has entrusted have the constitutional and moral authority and power to kill American citizens inside America using drones when all other means have failed. Republican Senator Rand Paul filibustered for 13 hours the other day to compel an answer out of the Obama administration. The answer is no.

I suspect it is the eerie invisibility of the source of the ammo and its dramatic suddenness as well as heavy collateral damage that together make drone killing so much more fearsome for people. No matter how precise drone killing is, an object of the size and mass of a Hellfire missile even without any explosive charge inside it and falling from a few miles above can cause considerable death and destruction. The physics of a falling object will ensure that much.

U.S. drone strikes in Pakistan have killed hundreds of innocent people in collateral damage. I do not remember anyone filibustering that. The very clinical detachment of such drone strikes that is exercising minds in America these days has been used to such devastating effect elsewhere for years now.

The following are the figures of drone killings in Pakistan compiled by the Bureau of Investigative Journalism. They represent the period 2004-January 2013.

    Total US strikes: 364
    Obama strikes: 312
    Total reported killed: 2,534-3,573
    Civilians reported killed: 411-884
    Children reported killed: 168-197
    Total reported injured: 1,172-1,463

Without anyone actually saying it in so many words, what is being said in this debate is that we are perfectly willing to turn a blind eye to the harrowing collateral deaths of the innocent as long as they occur outside the sovereign borders of America. In that sense the debate is about innocent Americans dying and not innocent people dying.

I do not see any great philosophical difference between an operator sitting in a high-tech facility somewhere in Arizona and pushing buttons to fire a Hellfire and a soldier firing his weapon at a target from a much closer range. Other than the direct personal danger to the soldier, which all nation-states have in their wisdom determined to be acceptable, there is no difference between the two actions. The drone operator, of course, can always go home for lunch and come right back.

The objection to drones could not be that we do not have enough skin in the fight. It also could not be that it is such clinically detached targeted killing. Nor for that matter that the president and those around him have chosen the target because individuals do that all the time in war. I suppose the fear is that drones are prone to being grotesquely abused by the president and those around him out of personal or political vendetta. Hence the absurd example of actress and political activist Jane Fonda or some version of her being so targeted.

The way I see it is that such moral and constitutional lines are already being routinely transgressed everyday. It is because those who suffer from such transgressions are not American citizens, we have somehow managed to rationalize them in our minds. If I had a terrorist neighbor in Peshawar, Pakistan, who was targeted by a drone while he was getting rid of his inordinately long nostril hair one morning, it is entirely likely that I too will die or, at the very least, suffer grievous injury. Why is that any less outrageous than a Jane Fonda or a version of her being targeted?

I don’t think there is any answer to this question other than admitting that we do not particularly care about what happens to someone 7000 miles away. Collateral damage is a great expression for everyone except those who are the collateral damage.

I remain unresolved about this debate other than saying with anguish that as a race humans will always find mitigating circumstances for all their egregious actions.

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About chutiumsulfate

South Asians can infer from my name what I am. View all posts by chutiumsulfate

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