“New” vs Important Issues

Rosa Brooks thinks that the case against drones is poorly argued:

Drones don’t present any “new” issues not already presented by aerial bombing — or by any previous historical method of killing from a distance.

The longbow and cross bow were also once considered immoral…in 1139, the Second Lateran Council of Pope Innocent II is said to have “prohibit[ed] under anathema that murderous art of crossbowmen and archers, which is hateful to God” — at least when used against Christians.

If drone strikes enable us to kill enemies without exposing our own personnel, this is presumably a good thing, not a bad thing. Maybe we shouldn’t kill anyone, or maybe we’re killing the wrong people — but these are assertions about ethics, intelligence and strategy, not about drones.

As I’ve noted in the past, the comparison to aerial bombing is flawed.

First of all, it’s a distraction from whether the drone strikes are right or wrong.  Arguing the merits of a new issue might be an interesting exercise for scholars of International Humanitarian Law, but it is not the civic responsibility of concerned Americans to prove that a “new” issue has arisen.  In any event, it is not the position of anti-drone activists that the US government never committed a wrong with aerial bombing.

More to the point, the totality of standoff is what distinguishes drones from longbows. Despite their standoff advantage, longbowmen could find themselves caught in a charge.  Drone operators cannot.

Brooks states that in her next post, she will explain how “unmanned technologies…provide the executive branch with a new means of circumventing the War Powers Act, increasing the temptation to use force.” Here we agree.

Through their combination of precision, loiter, and standoff capability, drones are a newly efficient facilitator of executive abuse of force.  They can be used for assassination without our consent and with zero risk of accountability for the loss of one of “our own.”  The statesman’s dilemma of having to potentially explain the capture of a downed pilot in a state of peace is a thing of the past.  In the abstract, it’s true that decisions about who and when to kill are matters of intelligence and ethics.  In practical terms, drones make it difficult or impossible for American citizens to influence such decisions.

Where I think we disagree is in the moral commonality between the layman’s distaste for killing with impunity and the more politically sophisticated objection to presidential circumvention of the War Powers Act. We can debate the meaning of “a safe distance,” but the common folk are right to be intuitively uneasy about airmen (to say nothing of CIA civilians) who’ve never even flown a warplane killing with impunity.  Killing with impunity and killing at some (however minimized) risk of reciprocation are distinct social acts.  Dismissing the distinction is a disservice to our national moral discourse.


  1. I like it. You make a great argument and this is something that isn’t being discussed and argued as rigorously as it should.

  2. Thank you sir.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: