Drone Strikes: What Are the Moral Issues?
As suggested in a previous post, certain ambiguities associated with drone strikes in Pakistan and Yemen make it difficult for the public to understand the issues, and for activists to mount effective opposition.
Above all we must not let this confusion distract attention from the basic moral issues and harms. Therefore, in the face of constant double-talk by government officials, we respond with the potent weapons of simplicity and clear presentation of issues.
To repeat what was said previously, drone strikes are of four kinds: (1) targeted killings, (2) signature strikes, (3) overt combat actions, and (4) covert combat actions. The moral issues listed below apply in different degrees to each type of drone strike.
The specific moral harms can be broadly aggregated into two groups, according to seriousness. We shall name these the top tier and second tier moral issues, respectively. After presenting the issues, some brief suggestions will be made for how the US might conduct drone strikes — if they are truly necessary — in a more just and moral way.
Top tier issues
- Civilian deaths/casualties. Clearly the most important moral issue is that drone strikes, especially in Pakistan, have killed or injured many innocent civilians. Serious consideration must also be given to the gruesomeness of the injuries and manner of death, and the associated effects of this on survivors and relatives of those killed or injured.
- Terrorization. Very plausible reports have circulated concerning the mass terrorization of civilians in the Tribal Regions of Pakistan because of drones. In some areas, drones, often several at the same time, can be heard constantly, even at night. Whenever a drone is present, nobody can be sure they will not be killed in the next instant.
- Racism. The civilian-to-militant casualty ratio deemed acceptable by US government officials is evidently very high. This suggests that the life of civilian Pakistani or Yemeni has comparatively little value in the eyes of the US government. So high a level of ‘collateral damage’ would be not be accepted were these British, German or French citizens.
- Disregard of religious customs and principles. Particularly questionable is the use of follow-up drone strikes, which attack people who come to rescue or remove bodies from the scene of an initial strike, and strikes directed against funerals of slain militants. Civilized and decent people have always granted enemies the right to collect and bury the dead. In any case, a funeral is a religious ceremony, and no moral people would attack another during a religious service. Moreover, the US has launched strikes during its own religious holidays, such as on Good Friday, and on January 1, both holy days for Christians. It is also reported that drone missiles travel faster than the speed of sound, and therefore kill victims without any advance warning. If so, this removes the possibility of praying or collecting oneself in the moments before death (however ‘unfashionable’ it may be these days to mention such an issue, it is nonetheless a significant one).
- Secrecy. If the strikes were just and honorable, the US government would conduct them in a transparent way, explaining its procedures and admitting and making restitution for collateral damage. But the strikes are cloaked in secrecy. The secrecy is, then, evidence that the strikes are immoral: otherwise the US government would more readily admit them and disclose details. Moreover, the secrecy is a moral harm itself: it reduces government credibility, fosters ill-will between nations, and alienates the US government from its own citizens.
- Effects on drone operators. It is wrong for any nation to induce its citizens to act as cold-blooded exterminators of other human beings. This is utterly incompatible with human nature, and must be producing terrible psychological damage in drone operators.
Second tier issues
- Issues of international law. The drone strikes, especially in Pakistan (where citizens consistently voice their disapproval), are illegal because they violate the sovereignty of other nations. Civilian drone operators are illegal combatants under international law. Drone attacks in Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia constitute a form of undeclared war, which is illegal both under international and US law.
- Issues of democratic principles. All available evidence suggests that most Pakistan drone strikes are what an earlier post termed covert combat actions: they are targeting ordinary militants, not high-level terrorists. The evidence also suggests that this is done by covert collusion between the US government and conservative factions of the Pakistani government. Both governments must issue deceptive statements to their respective citizenries to cover things up. This removes the citizens from oversight and direction of their own lives. In the case of the US, it is also probable that defense contractor lobbying is instrumental in expanding the drone strike campaigns.
- Arms escalation. Eager use of drones and rapid development of more advanced systems by the US is setting the stage for an international drone arms race. Especially disturbing is the current development of autonomous drones, which may attack and kill without human input.
- Inhumane treatment of enemy militants. We are required to show respect for enemies, and to always regard them as human beings; killing by remote control is antithetical to this principle.
- Nonexpedience. The aggressive drone strike campaigns are also immoral because they harm US national security: the strikes produce more new enemies than they neutralize. They also erode the moral foundations of American society and damage its reputation abroad. By producing new enemies, and, consequently, potentially new wars, they threaten America’s economy.
- Evasion of responsibility. The drone strikes (and the global ‘war on terror’ generally), demonstrate a reluctance by the US to admit its own partial responsibility for creating global instability. The attacks of 9/11 and on the USS Cole in Yemen were morally evil, to be sure. Yet the US must honestly consider the extent to which it helped provoke the attacks by a long standing policy of crass imperialism. The US has also been complicit with the illegal efforts of Israel to functionally annex the West Bank territories of Palestine. These things do not justify the terrorist attacks on the US, but should be considered as mitigating factors in determining our response to the attacks.
- Dishonorable warfare. When soldiers engage under more or less equal terms, there is potentially a kind of honor associated with warfare. When one party has an immense advantage, killing becomes mere slaughter, with no trace of honor.
If the US wishes to conduct drone strikes in a more moral manner, then particular attention should be given to the top tier moral issues. The main requirement is to reduce civilian casualties to an absolute minimum. This can most effectively be done by limiting the number of strikes, such as by restricting them only to targets who are genuinely direct and immediate threats to US domestic security. In any case, the CIA and Department of Defense obviously monitor strikes closely, and have data on civilian casualties. They should routinely report these data (consistent with the Geneva Conventions). If a strike is deemed genuinely necessary, the US should be able to defend it openly in the court of public opinion. The US should also issue public statements of regret for civilian casualties, and make restitution.
Related: Vatican statement on autonomous weapons and lethal drones (14 Nov 2013)
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