In Defense of Drones

Abu Yahya al-Libi's family was not happy with the way he died, although he will certainly be treated as a martyr. Killed in a drone strike in Pakistan, they lambasted the United States military. How could the United States stoop to such an inhumane way to deal with an enemy? This reaction reminded people of the classic definition of chutzpah: a cold-blooded murderer of his parents pleading for mercy on the grounds that he is an orphan. It just doesn't seem right that Al-Qaeda, responsible for the savage destructions of tens of thousands of lives through butchery and mayhem, should be complaining about how the West took out its second in command.

"The United States talks human rights and freedoms for all, but the method they used to kill him is savage," said Abu Bakr al-Qayed, brother of al-Libi. "The way the Americans killed him is heinous and inhumane. . . . We are in the 21st century and they claim to be civilized and this is how they take out people. . . . He was a human being and at the end of the day deserves humane treatment." Note that it was not the killing through extra-territorial assassination—which actually does pose a legal question worth asking—that he objected to, but the method. Maybe there is something there to consider.

It has only been fairly recently that nations began drafting agreements about the conduct of warfare. The first Geneva Convention took place in 1864. Until modern times, several often opposing currents created rules of combat.

The oldest restrictions on warfare were religious. Several sections in Deuteronomy imposed demands upon armies and soldiers. They stipulated that military action had to: be preceded by suing for peace; legislate against wanton destruction; remind the population that the purpose of war was to ensure the well-being of individuals, not the State (by spelling out mandatory exemptions from military service); accommodate the wishes of individuals—combatants and non-combatants—to flee (legislating that a siege around a city provide an avenue of escape); demand that soldiers cover up their wastes in order preserve personal refinement under conditions that often turn soldiers into savages. The Talmud speaks of differing levels of justification for war, each one calling for different checks and balances before hostilities began. In medieval times, Catholic Just War doctrine offered important guidelines in reining in the powers of war.

Pushing in a different direction, medieval codes of chivalry and gallantry placed a premium on bravery and skill in battle. Combat was the place a person found honor, pride, and fame.

The glory of one-on-one struggle took a large hit in the trenches of World War I. Gas attacks, automatic guns, and the huge numbers of casualties took much of the honor out of warfare. Yet, even as world populations took in horrible images of the pain and gore of battle, the chivalrous ideal did not disappear. It moved and morphed, taking up residence elsewhere.

Classic cowboy movies preserved the old romanticized ideal. Consider the penultimate scene, the one before the hero in white rides off into the sunset. The Good Guy has been hunting down the Bad Guy for years. He finds him sitting with his back to the door, nursing a drink at the Tombstone Saloon. The Bad Guy is unarmed, and unaware. What does the Good Guy do? He throws him one of his two six-shooters, to make it a fair fight. This leads to the two of them staring down each other, waiting for one of them to draw first. The Good Guy prevails, as do chivalry and justice.

Jewish tradition detests the screenplay. It would call for the Good Guy to hunker down to best protect himself, and quietly shoot the Bad Guy before he catches on.

There is no glory in killing people, whether individuals or armies. Killing is justifiable and necessary in self-defense and in the defense of nations. It should never be seen as anything more than a tragically necessary evil. The Talmud depicts G-d telling David that he would be allowed to begin the preparations for the building of the Jerusalem Temple, but he would not be allowed to bring the project to completion, because he had blood on his hands. David asks if this means that he was guilty of taking lives unnecessarily. Not at all, G-d responds to him. All the deaths he caused were justified. Nonetheless, the Temple will be a place where true peace becomes accessible through closeness with G-d. That peace is incompatible with the taking of lives, even when morally justified. There is no Divine glory in war and combat.

There is also nothing to be celebrated in a fair fight. The Bad Guy should be eliminated if and only if it is the only way to prevent him from killing others. When such is the case, he should be dispatched as expeditiously and efficiently as possible. There is no room for taking chances with the lives of others, or even Good Guy's own life. It is not his to trifle with.