Because most philosophies that frown on reproduction don't survive.

Monday, October 24, 2011

Drone Killings and the Slippery Slope

There have been worries expressed on both sides of the political spectrum about the use of drone killings against Al Qaeda, and more especially so as it's come out that the Obama Administration has a secret "kill list" which even includes American citizens who are working with Al Qaeda overseas (as was the recently killed Anwar al-Awlaki).

It seems to be that there is a legitimate worry here. In a sense, drones are the modern American equivalent of pillars of the Victorian British Empire such as Charles "Chinese" Gordon -- gallivanting about the world to put down disturbances wherever they occur. However, they're also relative unobtrusive and cheap. Thus, I would imagine that there is more danger of them being used to embroil us in conflicts that we really don't want to be in. (Which, come to that, is more or less what Gordon managed to do for the British Empire on an occasion or two.) While I think that US hegemonic power, like that of others such as the British and Romans in the past, is generally a positive force in the world, power is often a temptation to over reaching. Putting international intervention only a joystick away, without any need for congressional approval or oversight, seems to put just a bit too much power in the hands of an already imperial presidency.

At the same time, I don't find myself all that persuaded by that slippery slope claims which many have made in regards to drone attacks. The argument often goes: If the president (or some secret committee not even overseen clearly by the president) can order the killing of US citizens by drone strike without trial, are we still a republic of laws? Are we suddenly just one step away from a semi-dictatorship in which political opponents and other undesirables are assassinated at will? Do we need to worry about when drones come for us?

It seems to me that this glosses over the fact that drones are essentially a battlefield tool, albeit one that allows us to enter battlefields without deploying soldiers. When American citizens get mixed up with forces that the US military has been deployed to fight, there's never been any hesitancy to treat them the same on the battlefield as any other enemy soldier. As such, I don't think that the use of drones against Al Qaeda puts us on a slippery slope to some future president using drones against his political enemies any more than the long held ability of the president to order air or missal strikes against specific targets puts us on a slippery slope to the present bombing his opponent's party convention.

The worries that we should have over drone strikes have to do with their making it too easy to go to involve ourselves thoughtlessly in regional conflicts, not that it puts us on a road to some sort of military reign of terror.


Jennifer Fitz said...

I'm not concerned about the use of drones on the battlefield. It is the use of them as an assassination tool that is a problem.

I think one of the difficulties we have is that legitimate self-defense (and its counterpart just warfare) do mean that the bad guys get a leg up.
Even though it would be mighty "effective" to pick off one's enemies before they have a chance to do more harm, doing so is immoral.

Gail F said...

I agree with Jennifer. Sending drones to assassinate people -- who are not even actually in a country we're at war with -- is the problem. Now, I'm not saying it can't be done. But if (a big if) we think it is okay under some circumstances, then what are those circumstances? If it is okay to assassinate American citizens because they are now "bad," then when do they become bad enough to assassinate? Look, I am not weeping over the guy! But was he declared a non-citizen at some point? Was he formally named an enemy combatant? Rules. I am looking for rules. Otherwise, it really is a matter of whoever the president wants to kill.

Let's say we all think President Obama is a genius and morally unimpeachable... so what? Maybe you trust him to make the decision about who it's okay to kill. Even so, you don't make a rule that whoever is president gets to kill whoever he thinks is a bad enough threat to the country!

Tausign said...

We haven't had the debate about projecting power robotically. Or future warfare such as beaming laser weaponry from outer space on pin point targets, or using non-human life forms such as animals and insects modified with technology to stand as our ally. We can't understand how the asymmetry of it all breeds frantic and fanatical responses such as suicide bombing and desire for 'dirty weaponry'.

At some point this becomes morally repugnant to allies and independant observers. When this happens we find ourselves more isolated and our relationships become based even more upon power, utility and efficiency, rather than solidarity. That's the true slippery slope.

Darwin said...

I'd agree to an extent -- but I think the battlefield/assassination difference gets a bit smudged in that the only places where drones are being used for targeted killings (Afghanistan, Pakistan, Yemen) are pretty much places where we either already are at war or probably would be carrying out small scale wars if it weren't for the fact that we can do it "on the cheap" with drones.

Don't get me wrong, I think there's a massive temptation here to get into wars that we quite arguably shouldn't because with drones "it's easy". But I don't think it's necessarily a very clear distinction that these are assassinations and not small scale military actions -- something that US has carried out in these kinds of parts of the world a lot and for a long time.

Anonymous said...

The President claims the power to kill US citizens anywhere he wants, any time he wants, and claims furthermore that these decisions are not reviewable by Congress nor by any court and need not be disclosed to the public.

You really don't see a problem with that? The question of whether these assassinations are carried out by armed soldiers or by drones is irrelevant. THE PRESIDENT BELIEVES HE CAN KILL US WITH IMPUNITY! President Bush claimed this power, and President Obama has affirmed it.

Permit me to suggest that you are focusing on the wrong side of this issue.


Darwin said...


Um, no, Joel, I do no think that the president believes that. (And I say this as someone who doesn't trust Obama to pet sit, much less govern.) Unless by "us" you mean American citizens who are defacto members of groups engaged in military operations against the US.

I wrote a piece explaining why I think this is the case which you can read, if you'd like, but scrolling up a bit. :-)

Mariana said...

"missal strikes"? =)

John Beegle said...


I think your original blog posting covered the issue well. I don't know if you've seen the xkcd cartoon addressing drone strikes, but it's worth checking out:

Anonymous said...

Darwin, yes, you are clearly right. Future presidents of any political party will obviously restrict this unreviewable and unaccountable power to kill to those who clearly deserve it, and no one else. Just because.

You trust the president too much.

Joel (Obama voter)

Darwin said...


You got me. (That's the problem with liturgists: they don't negotiate.)


It's not that I trust future presidents to only use drone strikes against people who "clearly deserve it". I'm quite ready to believe that future will, as past presidents have, use military force against people who don't deserve it. (After all, remember that dangerous Asperin factory that Clinton blew up with cruise missiles?)

But I don't believe that this represents a process that will be used in the foreseeable future in situations other than de facto war zones. (And let's be honest, we don't have accountable and reviewable processes to determine which positions get attacked by US forces in de facto war zones anyway. Wars aren't waged that way.)

If you want to freak people out about about the likelihood of ordinary US citizens being killed for not very good reasons by their own government -- try talking about the abuse of no-knock search warrants. Or about the Clinton justice department's hijinks in situations like the Branch Davidians or Ruby Ridge.

Jennifer Fitz said...

"But I don't think it's necessarily a very clear distinction that these are assassinations and not small scale military actions -- something that US has carried out in these kinds of parts of the world a lot and for a long time."

Darwin, that sums up the argument beautifully. I think many of our small-scale military actions, covert or not, are immoral. [And yes, quite a few of our in-house police, social work, and regulatory actions as well.] But if you'd be good with the same assassination carried out by just a guy with a gun, then I agree, where he shoots from doesn't much matter.