The Dangerous Drone Dilemma


The dilemma facing us with drones needs a fresh perspective: "What is the alternative?" Or as some might say, "What is the worst that can happen?"The later is the danger that when we overreach we create enemies whose tactics are brutal and have no care for children, babies, women, and the elderly. (Sounds a little like My Lai, doesn't it?) So we at least aren't openly talking about nuclear holocaust as we did back in the Cuban Missile Crisis two heads of state resolved with secret meetings despite their henchmen threatening to expose their compromising as unpatriotic and weak.

Many of these Al Qaeda types are so determined they will not stop until they either kill themselves with others, or set off bombs that allow their escape for another deadly terrorist act when the next opportunity arises. They have to be dealt with like insects. Really? It seems so despite that inhuman response. What stretch of logic says they have any human qualities left when they send bombs to where babies are nursing? That too can be said of Vietnam’s “Rolling Thunder" that did not discriminate while "CARPET BOMBING!"So it is no wonder that presidential adviser John Brennan, argued that because the US is in a worldwide, armed conflict with Al Qaeda and its allies, drone strikes are governed by the laws of armed conflict. Targeted killings are therefore legal and can be carried out in self defense. The US is not applying the laws of war or human rights law to its targeted killing policy. Instead ‘the United States has cobbled together its own legal framework for targeted killing, with standards that are far less stringent than the law allows,’ says the ACLU’s Hina Shamsi,national security director.

Is there anyone who would argue that carefully calibrated drone use would be worse than the direct targeting of civilians that occurred in Dresden, Hiroshima and Nagasaki? Can we sanction human agents making life and death decisions safely sequestered in comfortable quarters thousands of miles from the kill zone? What if the justification comes from questionable sources, is often circumstantial, based on hearsay, or guilt by association? More troubling if it turns out the executioners' decisions are erroneous or based on information provided by something like video game screens?

So the worst that can happen is that we keep breeding hatred by our use of drones that don't perform accurately like some expect pest control to. When the poison kills our own we have lost. And the drumbeat for more and better weapons becomes it’s own driving force in the military industrial complex. More, and better drones will appear like better nuclear missiles. The armaments will grow. They have become a radicalizing force in some Muslim countries. And proliferation will inevitably put them in the hands of odious regimes where everyone will be vulnerable, unless a real disarmament movement is finally lobbied for, and established world wide to prevent our mutual destruction.

It's like JFK and Khrushchev once decided, disarmament is against the military's advice, but is in the world's best interest. What happened to that sentiment? Hopefully, Nixon, LBJ, Westmoreland, Lemay, Bush, Rumsfeld, and Cheney and their minions didn't forever end that hopeful legacy. This is not Pollyanna thinking of a blind optimist; it is planning for survival with people determined to prevent peace for reasons including greed, religion, patriotism, and self-interest, among a host of others. That did not deter Gandhi, Martin Luther King, and the passionate never-ending protesters against the Vietnam War until it was finally over.

The practice of firing a second set of drone strikes at the scene once people have come to find out what happened or to give aid is even more chilling than the well-known unintended civilian deaths in drone strikes. Drones routinely kill civilians who are in the vicinity of people thought to be “militants” and are justified as “incidental” killings.

However, assassinations were outlawed in 1976 when President Gerald Ford issued Executive Order 11905, Section 5(g): “No employee of the United States Government shall engage in, or conspire to engage in, political assassination.” President Reagan made the ban clearer in Executive Order 12333. Section 2.11 of that Order: “No person employed by or acting on behalf of the United States Government shall engage in, or conspire to engage in, assassination.” Section 2.12 : “Indirect participation. No agency of the Intelligence Community shall participate in or request any person to undertake activities forbidden by this Order.”

Richard Falk, professor emeritus of international affairs and politics at Princeton University states killing of civilians in drone strikes may constitute war crimes. “There are two fundamental concerns. One is embarking on this sort of automated warfare in ways that further dehumanize the process of armed conflict in ways that I think have disturbing implications for the future. Related to that are the concerns I’ve had recently with my preoccupation with the occupation of Gaza of a one-sided warfare where the high-tech side decides how to inflict pain and suffering on the other side that is, essentially, helpless.”

US Military Law of War Deskbook, states that law of war allows killing only when consistent with four key principles: military necessity, distinction, proportionality, and humanity. These principles preclude both direct targeting of civilians and medical personnel but also set out how much “incidental” loss of civilian life is allowed. The US military directs “all practicable precautions” be taken to weigh the anticipated loss of civilian life against the advantages expected by the strike.

John Brennan recently defended the legality of drone strikes and argued they are not assassinations because the killings are in response to the 9/11 attacks and are carried out in self-defense even when not in Afghanistan or Iraq. This argument is based on the highly criticized claim of anticipatory self-defense which justifies killings in a global war on terror when traditional self-defense would clearly not.

We can only hope that people of conscience will demand reasonable restrictions on the drone policy so that civilian casualties are the exception, and the person or persons targeted have been vetted sufficiently by someone other than our military to assure they are enemy combatants determined to kill Americans. A hearing before a judicial tribunal, while necessary if a bonafide American citizen is the target, is not a practical, nor necessary, solution for those who have defected and target our country for terrorist attacks.

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About Daniel C. Lavery

Dan’s writing shows his transformation from a child to an athlete and a Duke pre-ministerial student where he began to question ancient and arbitrary dogma. He graduated from Annapolis, navigated a Navy jet, and a ship to Vietnam, fell in love, turned peace activist and a civil rights lawyer for Cesar Chavez's UFW. His memoir, "All the Difference," describes the experiences, some humorous and others deadly, that changed his consciousness from a pawn to an advocate crusading for justice against some of the most powerful forces in America.

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