Distant Death: The Case for a Moratorium on Drone Strikes

Arguing against America's targeted killing program before a live university audience
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University of Richmond

These remarks were delivered Wednesday evening at the University of Richmond in a debate on drones. Benjamin Wittes of the Brookings Institution took the opposing side. I'll link his arguments when a recording of the event is available. For now, much of his position can be gleaned from his remarks at Oxford Union.

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What if I told you all that an armed Predator drone is circling above us right now? It isn't. So don't worry. But if an armed drone was there, would it make you feel anxious? If we could hear the buzz of its engine, would that change the tenor of our time together? Now let's imagine that this drone is hovering overhead because there's a terrorist hanging out 100 yards away from this building. We're often told how precise drone strikes are. Obama Administration officials have called them surgical. If a surgery were happening in the building next door I wouldn't be worried about getting nicked by the scalpel. Would you be worried for your safety if you were 100 yards away from drone strike? Say you're laying in bed one night, and in the house next door, a terrorist is laying in his bed.

Would you want a drone strike to take him out? 

If next door is too close for comfort, do you think the U.S. military or the CIA should be allowed to carry out drone strikes on terrorists with innocent people next door?  

Thankfully, the fear that drones bring to innocent people in places like Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Yemen isn't something that any of us is likely to experience first-hand—especially (if the drones know what's good for them) in the presence of this esteemed scholar from the Brookings Institution. In seriousness, I want to thank Ben Wittes for sharing the stage with me tonight. On so many subjects, we look at the world in very different ways, but I've always appreciated his commitment to participating in public discourse, and I aspire to his command of what he calls lawfare. Thank you, as well, to the organizers of this event, and to everyone who came out to watch. 

Soon, I hope debates on the merits of targeted killing are taking place not only at universities, but inside the federal court system. The Obama Administration hopes to avoid that fate. Its lawyers would have us believe that targeted killing with drones is a state secret, or else a so-called political question that isn't properly decided by judges. 

In Israel, a state with national-security challenges far greater than ours, the Supreme Court grappled with this same question. Do judges have any role to play in targeted killing? They didn't see it as a close question. They saw their role as determining "the permissible and the forbidden" in combat that implicates "the most basic right of a human being—the right to life." They affirmed that "non-justiciability cannot prevent the examination of that question." I suspect James Madison would find their approach more prudent than what the Obama Administration suggests. The administration would have us believe not only that they're empowered to kill an American in secret, but that after the fact, courts should refrain from judging whether the killing violated the right to life of the target. 

Does anyone else think that's a recipe for abuses?   

But legal doctrine is not my area of expertise. So I'd like to begin, instead, with a moral question: Is it ever okay for the U.S. to kill people with drones? "This is actually an easy question," Mr. Wittes once said, "since drones clearly enable more discriminating and deliberative targeting than do alternative weapon systems." I want to repeat that. He thinks that once you've decided to use force, drones could be the most moral choice, because they're more deliberative and discriminating. 

That's an interesting standard.

It got me thinking: Is it ever okay for the U.S. to use biological weapons? Is that ever the most moral option? They're terrifying. A taboo surrounds them, and treaties prohibit their use. 

And yet. 

Imagine a remote al-Qaeda compound. Inside its walls are a few dozen adult bomb makers, their wives, and many scores of children. Explosives are everywhere. A drone strike or a firefight would cause the whole place to blow. But a U.S. scientist has an alternative: a biological agent that, if dispersed over the compound, would target, incapacitate and kill only the adult males. Only the militants—no one else. Would that discriminating bioweapon be the most moral option?

That's a hard question. On one hand, maybe you save a lot of innocent women and children. On the other hand, using a bioweapon would have implications that transcend any one discrete mission. Similarly, using weaponized drones has implications that go far beyond any one discrete strike. Let's think through some of them.

1) For a drone strike to be an option, the United States has to fund a drone industry to build its arsenal, negotiate leases for drone bases in various foreign countries—often non-democracies where the people do not want a drone base and would vote against it if they were afforded rights that we think of as universal. In building this drone fleet and the infrastructure to use it, America inevitably normalizes the notion of weaponized drones all over the globe, and it seeds an industry that is certain to contribute to the weapon's proliferation in the future. 

2) In thought experiments, we may be able to separate the questions, "Should force be used?" and, "If so, what is the most ethical weapon available?" But the questions are not typically asked independent of one another. A fleet of drones at the ready significantly lowers the costs of certain lethal operations. As we've seen, it also makes perpetual war possible in a way that it wasn't before. Due to drones, lethal acts occur that wouldn't have happened in a world without drones. And those acts can be carried out with more secrecy than would otherwise be possible.  

3) The ability to hover for hours or even days does permit deliberation and discrimination. But hovering also imposes a cost on many thousands of innocents. Drones don't just affect targets, actual and aborted. They affect whole communities. People who live in communities where drones hover overhead report severe anxiety, terrified children, mental health problems, trouble sleeping, paranoia (and after drone strikes occur, pervasive mistrust as people wonder if a local helped call down the Hellfire missile). Communities stop gathering in large numbers to attend prayers or public meetings. They're forced to live in what any of us might consider a dystopia, if we were forced to live there. How would you feel if every night you had to tuck your children into bed as the buzz of drones overhead made them afraid that they'd never wake up again?

As it turns out, asking if there's ever a discrete targeted killing where a drone is the most ethical option tells us very little. Like land mines or bio-weapons or torture to prevent a nuclear holocaust, a drone strike might be the most ethical option in a given situation. But a blanket ban might nevertheless be an ethical imperative. Perhaps so many terrible consequences inevitably flow from building, maintaining, and using a fleet of armed drones that a ban leaves us better off.

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Conor Friedersdorf is a staff writer at The Atlantic, where he focuses on politics and national affairs. He lives in Venice, California, and is the founding editor of The Best of Journalism, a newsletter devoted to exceptional nonfiction.

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