Ignorance drones on: The real impact of drone strikes on political and moral philosophy

Listen to this article

Death From Above.

In almost any real or fictional scenario, we determine the morality of perpetrating violence based on various factors. Usually, these include an assessment of the person being hurt and the consequences of retribution or prevention on the innocent or uninvolved. Sometimes, we factor in all available knowledge of what will happen if action is not taken.

Sometimes, we dare to ask ourselves if we have the right to make an ethical judgment at all. All this goes into the process of what we call “subjective morality,” meaning that there is no cut and dry barometer of right and wrong.

Furthermore, our responsibility for the actions of our government and our military seems to lift the liability, to some extent.

How then do we respond to the knowledge that our country is responsible for the indiscriminate killing of civilians, including children, who are entirely disconnected from the war criminals and terrorists we mean to target?

Ideally, drone strikes are meant to increase the accuracy and limit the negative repercussions of attacks. With the ability to fly overhead and provide visual intelligence to special intelligence forces and even troops on the ground, we could anticipate more calculated military operations and strike strategically, confining the loss of life to those who seek to destroy life themselves. Unfortunately, what we’ve seen has been just the opposite.

Shabwa, Yemen, after drone strikes. (Flickr/dianadrz)
Shabwa, Yemen, after drone strikes. (Flickr/dianadrz)

Steve Coll’s article in The New Yorker chronicled the beginning of drone strikes, primarily in Pakistan, from the Bush-Hayden plan to increase drone strikes to the current rate at which Obama has employed the use of Hellfire “signature strikes.” These, Coll explains, are strikes targeting prominent figures, even if their identities cannot be entirely confirmed. In addition, most sources cite the death toll of innocents as shamefully high, with a 2015 article by Andrew Blake of The Washington Times, giving a ninety percent rate for unintended targets.

This is too contradictory to even be considered ironic, given that the whole concept of drone strikes is too eliminate needless killing.

Coll writes: Hayden approved changes to the internal C.I.A. targeting and strike guidelines. These changes gave rise to what would become known as “signature strikes.” The new rules allowed drone operators to fire at armed military-aged males engaged in or associated with suspicious activity even if their identities were unknown. (To justify this looser approach, a former Administration official said, C.I.A. lawyers relied on instructions in an M.O.N. that permitted strikes on terrorist property and facilities.)

Signature strikes are “not a concept known to international humanitarian law,” according to Christof Heyns, the U.N. special rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary, or arbitrary executions. The proper standard for attacking a person under the laws of war is whether the person has a “continuous combat function” or is “directly participating in hostilities.” If a signature strike rests on “targeting without sufficient information to make the necessary determination, it is clearly unlawful,” Heyns argues in a 2013 report submitted to the U.N. General Assembly. The Obama Administration’s position is that, relying on intelligence sources, the C.I.A.’s remote operators could determine whether armed men were involved in violence directed against American personnel and interests.”

In the same article, Coll reports that drones have been more merciful than past airborne attacks if you look only at civilian death tolls (reportedly over 900, from a nongovernmental source).

And yet, based on the work of student research at NYU and Stanford in 2012, any conclusion that drones have become concise in their ability to target without notable collateral damage is bogus. Their findings uncovered nearly 250-300 civilian deaths between 2004 to 2014, supported by analysis and meta-analysis done by the Bureau of Investigative Journalism. (Actually, the BOIJ reported even higher death tolls.)

While the C.I.A. and Dianne Feinstein may dispute this data, with Feinstein putting the yearly civilian deaths “in the single digits,” it’s not only the numbers behind drones that should upset us, but the principles. In an effort to loosen the rules of engagement and limit political liability, the current governmental powers have — according to Jo Becker and Scott Shane of Times — decided that unidentifiable adult males discovered in the rubble of drone attacks will be written off as combatants unless proven innocent … by some presumably mysterious method, after death. (That’s definitely paraphrasing, but it’s definitely a less euphemistic way of saying they’ve decided that Ignorance if Militaristic Bliss.)

That should impact their “collateral damage” investigations quite a bit, don’t you think?

Alan Rickman in “Eye in the Sky” (YouTube)
Alan Rickman in “Eye in the Sky” (YouTube)

Not only that, but the advantages of drones as a spying device, while they could potentially produce life-saving results, should be proving themselves by now, considering that the BBC World News reports four years ago confirmed that their usage had “more than doubled under the Obama administration.”

Currently, the new film release Eye in the Sky tackles the questions inherent in using drones for military intelligence as well as weaponry, giving no swift answer — whether in the plot line or the moral imperative. Without giving away too much, the film puts on display the basic questions we use to analyze the necessity of force and the weight of human life in the balance.

For a comprehensive view of drone affairs, including the latest data reports for Pakistan, Yemen, and the latest drone attacks (as recent as February 22nd), check out the main site for The Bureau of Investigative Journalism. For a less taxing but nevertheless stimulating take on this topic, check out the newest media entry — and Alan Rickman’s last feature film performance, in the movie Eye in the Sky.

Photo above: the MQ-9 Reaper drone, from General Atomics.