Monday, February 25, 2013

How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Drone

By Charles Cullen

I'm going to make an argument that few progressives on Earth will be entirely comfortable reading. But I'm making it because the subject is one of the few areas where progressives are as scattered and self-deluded as the Right. As long as the Right continues to insist on taking a leave from sanity, the task of governing falls to us. And this is an issue we need to get straight.

Every pious Progressive knows how they should feel about drone strikes and drone technology in general. We are supposed to reject drones as a kind of neo-imperialistic affront to humanity; a rough beast that never should have been brought forth from the belly of the War Machine, and should be abandoned as soon as possible. But whenever we talk about drones we end up mixing the issues regarding drones and stirring these issues into a fine sauce of nonsense and general outrage. General outrage is incredibly dangerous here because it's useless in this case — it won't get anything done. It's dangerous because this is something we have to get right and because specific outrage is so desperately needed.

Chances are you have a few progressive friends. The next time you're having a drink with them, try talking drones. I guarantee that within seconds you will have managed to weave policy, legality, intelligence, and the knee jerk reaction to something fearful and inhuman roaming the skies into a finely knit crimes-against-humanity sweater. I'd like to pull the strands apart.

First we have several legal arguments about governance: how and when and on whom drones may be used, and then we have the argument about general constraints on the drone master. We need to look at each of these issues individually (as many, including the President, have already suggested). We need clear rules governing the use of drones, careful oversight of drone-strikes, and a policy commitment to sustaining excellent, actionable intelligence.

But we cannot allow a general fear of drones as a technology to bleed into our discussion of law or policy. It's fine if you're outraged by the very idea of drones, but I hope you are at minimum equally outraged by all troops currently stationed in other countries as they fight our ongoing war on a concept. As long as we are at war with “terror,” we will never be free of the need to assert some sort of military presence in countries not our own. We will always have to have some way of destroying terrorist networks, and that will usually involve killing people. As inaccurate as drones can be, I would argue that when tasked with killing enemies of our State, panicked, insufficiently supported soldiers are just as inaccurate and more likely to fan the flames of anger among members of the occupied foreign populace. People don't like houses blowing up without warning, causing collateral damage. They like being occupied even less. This is why violent occupation has and always will lead to organized resistance. If you, as an oppressed member of the native populace, pass your enemy every day on the street, folks suggesting creative ways to deal with your oppressors start sounding more and more reasonable by the day. Just ask the Taliban.

Soldiers have to deal with the shattering emotional toll of killing another human being (assuming of course they aren't killed themselves) and we are just seeing the start of what that means as veterans try to reeintegrate into normal life. Drones, as far as I know, are pretty ok with the whole thing.

So here's how the argument has to go: First, what legal changes do we need to make to drone policy? Second, what governmental changes do we need to make as far as the implimentation of policy and general oversite? And specifically, how much oversight can we ask for without jeopardizing the quick-strike necessity of drones? Third, what changes can we make to drone technology to lessen the possibilty of collateral damage in drone kills and make sure the only people we kill are the ones we mean to kill.

Countless advancements in killing technology have been greeted by people with a strong moral radar as the final step over the line; too far for a society to go and still call itself a just society. And that's good. It's necessary. But if we think that drone outrage is the first time people have looked at a weapon and recoiled, we're kidding ourselves. Certain members of the English military considered the crossbow to be “unsporting,” and some refused to use them. Refused, that is, until the other side picked them up.

And that is essentially where we find ourselves: in the grip of a policy, not a technology crisis. We can have the ethical argument when we decide to stop passing the ethical buck. If we suggest abandoning drones, we must also offer a comprehensive way to prevent our soldiers from having to sneak around buildings in the middle of the night, house to house, using the same intelligence we might give to a drone, kick down the door of the (hopefully) correct place, and execute whomever happens to be inside. Until we do that, we're worse than hypocrites, we're lazy, sadistic hypocrites.

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