A reader wants to discuss drones

He writes:

I’d like to see smarter heads than mine talking about it. I wonder if Rand Paul or someone might sponsor such a bill?

“What should a bill banning drone assassinations overseas, as well as domestic drone spying, look like?

It is irrelevant whether these machines are being used presently for good or evil, the ability to hover anywhere, to follow anyone and kill them at any time by pressing a button is TOO MUCH POWER for any government on earth to have, particularly any small subset of high-level government officials. If the trend continues, the sky will be full of OUR drones – American killing robots – and their controllers will be able to exercise their will however and whenever they choose.”

I don’t know that I agree with this particularly.  It seems a little late to the game to fret about wielding “too much power” in the form of a drone when we have enough hydrogen bombs to obliterate the human race multiple times.  My issue with drones is not that they kill people very selectively.  Indeed, I like selective rather than mass and indiscriminate killing in war.  My big issue with drones is that that the President wielding them has granted himself the power to use them against any person on the planet he decides needs killing, and with total secrecy and zero accountability–and that has already included quite a large number of innocents, whom he retroactively declares “terrorists”.  He could use a Glock with a silencer and it would be just as evil and dangerous.

By the way, for a little insight into how drone warfare affect the people who fly the drones, go here. The seduction of drone warfare is that it is “bloodless”. What this basically means is that our civilization gets to do one of the things it loves best: kill people while making sure all the slaughter is kept tidily out of view. We do it with our shame about abortion (by running the disgusting crime through a series of euphemisms. We do it with euthanasia. We do it with our shame about torture (also endlessly euphemized).  We do it with our shame about the death penalty (all while lying that this utterly hidden killing is some sort of ‘deterrent’). And now we are hoping to perfect it with warfare so that the process of slaughtering people who get in the way of running our slumbering culture of suburban consumerism happens with the fewest Americans possible bearing the burden and those killed are kept as far from the consciousness of most Americans as possible.  We are laboring to be on a permanent, eternal war footing, but to do it in the illusion of living in peace. It’s an apotheosis of the bizarre “We are locked in a clash of civilizations and struggling for our existence! And the way to meet this world-historical challenge is to go shopping!” weirdness that followed 9/11.  That, in addition to the Prez’s tyrannical murder powers, is sinister.

But, what do you think? Discuss.


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  • IB Bill

    I think we should hold a Geneva-style international convention on the use of drones, with the goal of banning them similar to chemical or biological weapons, or regulating them heavily.

    What drones are — it’s an answer to the terrorists’ asymmetric warfare. It’s how the nation-state adapted to the threat of mass destruction from non-state actors and created its own asymmetric warfare. The last nation-state adaptation to violence from failed states was colonialism; Bush tried neo-colonialism. Obama’s using drones. Basically, doing it right back to them.

    Unfortunately, that leaves the nation-state with a tool it can use, as you said, against its own citizens, for surveillance or for killing or anything in between. And extreme cases will be used to set precedents for use here.

    I agree drones are a discussion we as a nation need to have. I don’t see it happening, though. It’s kind of water under the bridge at this point. I see a majority of the population have a strong desire to be ruled, not governed. I think they’ll cheer on the drones, even against their neighbors.

    Problem is, someone will eventually figure out that you need to take out the drone pilots … and then we have chaos. Because you take out the drone pilot when they’re at 7-11 getting a cup of coffee on the way to work.

    Them’s my thoughts. I’ve mentioned to family and friends that drones are a far more serious issue than we think; I’m not getting any traction. Could be just me, though.

  • Glenn

    We need to stop calling them drones, because they give a false, euphemistic means of making the killing seem “bloodless,” as Mark says. Drones are robotic aircraft that are preprogrammed to fly autonomously. The aircraft we fly overseas to kill our Presidentially-designated enemies who have been Presidentially-designated for execution are flown by pilots and weapons/sensor operators who just happen to not be sitting in the aircraft. Indeed, the only difference between an F-16 or F/A-18 dropping a precision-guided bomb or missile on a terrorist and an MQ-9 Reaper (aka, “drone”) is the location of the pilot. The former is in the aircraft and the latter is typically sitting in a trailer in Nevada. And the former gives the president the political cover he needs to “kill people while making sure all the slaughter is kept tidily out of view,” not to mention *not* having a captured or killed pilot to deal with should the aircraft be shot down or crash for some reason.

    These are air strikes, assassinations and acts of war, plain and simple. By keeping the pilot out of the aircraft and calling them drones, they somehow become more acceptable and palatable. The intrinsic qualities of the action, however, remain. The president “could use a Glock with a silencer and it would be just as evil and dangerous.” God help us all when we actually develop the technology to make true, autonomous drones that can not only fly themselves (we already do have those, BTW), but can kill without a human-in-the-loop.

  • Lizzie

    “My big issue with drones is that that the President wielding them has granted himself the power to use them against any person on the planet he decides needs killing, and with total secrecy and zero accountability. ”

    Really? That’s your problem with drones? So if he had some puppet Senate Committee or secret judicial court looking over his shoulder, droning sixteen year old American boys and all the others to death would suddenly become okay? If it’s anything like the secret judicial oversight on terrorists wiretaps, etc, they will basically NEVER say no to any of his decisions because they LIKE killing. My problem with drones is that using them is cold-blooded murder. Having Senator Feinstein peering over the Presidents shoulder doesn’t solve my problem at all. If anything, it only will serve to legitimize the murders to a nation filled with people who will support any state crime, no matter how awful, as long as it is their Party holding office.

    • Mark Shea

      My apologies for lack of clarity. I have clarified that it is his lawlessness *and* his murder of innocents that I object to.

  • Lizzie

    I’ve read enough of your stuff on droning to know you couldn’t possible have meant that was your only objection. I just figure that you don’t want anyone going around saying, “Shea loves drones, except for the fact that there isn’t a blue ribbon panel overseeing them.” 😉

  • I apologize in advance, but I think humor is often the best way to make a point.
    “We are rapidly approaching a moment of truth both for ourselves as human beings and for the life of our nation. Now, truth is not always a pleasant thing. But it is necessary now to make a choice, to choose between two admittedly regrettable, but nevertheless *distinguishable*, postwar environments: one where you got twenty million people killed by drones, and the other where you got a hundred and fifty million people killed by terrorist attacks. Now, I’m not saying we wouldn’t get our hair mussed. But I do say no more than ten to twenty million killed, tops. Uh, depending on the breaks.”
    And I should further add that “I can no longer sit back and allow terrorist infiltration, terrorist indoctrination, terrorist subversion, and the international terrorist conspiracy to sap and impurify all of our precious bodily fluids.”

    • Lizzie

      Dr. Strangelove was bound to enter the conversation sooner or later!

  • Blog Goliard

    It’s useful to remind ourselves that the use of drones to do this killing is not the primary objection to the killing. Way too easy to slip into a brainless “eek! evil drones! bad killing!”/”yay! SEALs! good killing!” dualism, for one thing.

    But it’s also useful to muse on the aspects of drone warfare that make it distinctively creepy, seductive, dangerous, et cetera.

    I have similar thoughts regarding the pseudo-medical bloodlessness of execution by lethal injection. In the vast majority of cases, I would argue against any execution at all; but I also think there’s something distinctively reality-dodging, problematic, and creepy about this method that puts a criminal to sleep like a terminally ill pet. A bullet is, among other things, much more honest (and can even be more humane, if stories of inadequate anaesthesia in lethal injections are to be credited).

  • Steve P

    I have to think that if you take a case in relatively recent history– e.g. the Unabomber, and apply today’s drone technology to it, that far too many people would be completely fine with going in and blowing up his shack via remote. Why bother with the messiness of an arrest, due process, etc. And this way we don’t risk any lives of law enforcement personnel.

    But a thornier question is, what would be inherently wrong with using a drone for surveillance in such a case? Or in firing a (non-pyrotechnic) tear gas or some such into his place? Seems there are several layers to the drone question that we have to deal with.

  • Claude

    At this point a rubber-stamp court would be a big improvement over the status quo.

  • Stu

    “What this basically means is that our civilization gets to do one of the things it loves best: kill people while making sure all the slaughter is kept tidily out of view.”
    Framed a bit differently, but this is the objection of those in the military who are not fond of drones. Sending a drone into to take action only entail political risk for a President. While I don’t want our military to be placed in harm’s way when it is not required, I believe having to weigh the lives of Americans in taking military action is a good check and balance on pursuing such a course of action. It’s just too easy for the politicians to act.

    As an aside, I actually think this mentality started with Clinton who loved to throw Tomahawk missiles at the “problem.”

  • tz

    Hydrogen Bombs are a very blunt instrument. You can destroy entire countries, cultures, but you cannot change one mind, much less one heart. There was the neutron bomb as well.

    Drones are the equivalent of the over-the-counter abortion pill. It is remote, sterile, no need to get your hands dirty. Press a button and your problem is gone. A “delete” key for the real world.

    Something like TASERs. (Or earlier mace or pepper spray) This magic device “doesn’t harm” the person you use it on. So police feel free if you take a few milliseconds too do exactly what they say, they just TASE you and charge you with disorderly conduct, resisting arrest, loitering, since “contempt of cop” isn’t technically illegal.

    Executions are now – well they are Dr. Kervorkian on the unwilling. Medical. Something that looks like a hospital where killing is medically efficient (with actual hospitals becoming almost the same).

    Evil – sin – is much harder when it is ugly. When it is dirty. When it takes some effort.

    It is a mortal sin only with full knowledge or will, but willful ignorance doesn’t count. Some people can only sleep safe at night because sinful men are willing to commit mortal sins on their behalf, but it is still a mortal sin by proxy.

    And the Bishops who pop-up a few months before a general election to promote “life” have of course spoken out clearly against these evils? Evangelium Vitae that said in 21st century western society the death penalty cannot meet the narrow conditions for it to be licit? The Popes who have condemned our wars as unjust?

    And the Republican Robo-call Catholics who sound almost identical to any other dissenter – Keep your rosaries off my cluster bombs! might be a vulgar form but is their message. It would be like me going into a 15 minute discussion about ectopic pregnancies everytime I was asked about abortion instead of saying “Yes, it is evil, and must be abolished”, which should be the response to a question about the death penalty, but the response is always the long philosophical lecture. War is more complex, but it is usually around “prudential judgment” which seems to cover whimsical, hateful, stupid leaders doing whatever they want to prove a point in blood. No, the standards are quite open and we know what both the conduct and results are.

    To fight a war in a just manner requires us to be willing to suffer many more casualties since our soldiers are supposed to take the risk of death, not transfer it to women and children or other non-combatants on the ground if that will reduce the risk. When we do that we save our lives and damn our souls. War is quite literally hell, and once in it is hard to get back out and into heaven. But we would not be nearly as willing to go to war if it meant greatly increased deaths of our soldiers to avoid “collateral damage”. A country that slaughters a million innocent babies either doesn’t believe their souls exist or can be damned. But God is merciful, not stupid.

    It was hard to be indifferent to lynchings when they were hanging on trees or that open coffin funeral of that boy beaten to death.

    It is an evil in itself to transform evil such that it is something easy to be indifferent to.

    Many who deride people giving into lust in front of their computers cheer that hate, anger, death can be done just as safely and easily.

  • Tim Jones

    Not sure how I missed this, Mark, but thanks for posting my e-mail request.
    Someone above said, “But it’s also useful to muse on the aspects of drone warfare that make it distinctively creepy, seductive, dangerous, et cetera.”
    That’s the thing. Drones, when they are multiplied by the hundreds of thousands – and there is no current political rationale why they should not be – will be far worse than the Nukes of the cold war, *because* they are small and precise individually. Nuclear war quickly became unthinkable, but drones ARE NOT. A 24-7 network of drones will be a strategic “anti-crime” tool too seductive for the state to pass up. “Making our borders and cities and highways (etc.) safer for YOU, the law abiding citizen.”. Nukes were next to useless in terms of control of the populus. Drones are like a gift from heaven for statists, which happen to be the lion’s share of our current crop of politicians.

    This should cross all left/right political boundaries. This needs massive protest, and that right soon.