The drone wars

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With all the fuss about the missing weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, one small weapon of very specific destruction has been allowed to proliferate with little moral attention on this side of the late (once and future?) war on terror. The U.S. sponsored war of the drones has heated up in recent months, particularly since the Obama administration apparently made a tactical decision to rely on the unmanned if now well-armed aerial forces to step up its campaign against Taliban and Al Qaeda elements in Afghanistan and Pakistan.

The conflict now spills across three borders in the region, albeit high above them and with little likelihood of American casualties. Drones have evolved from eyes in the sky to high-tech sniper scopes with the power to deliver Hellfire missiles and 500 pound bombs on targets far below.

Unfortunately those targets have included noncombatants and Pakistan authorities, at least publicly, have more loudly protested the increasing pace of drone attacks on tribal territories. Pakistan's prime minister has even demanded that America hand over control of the drones operating in his country to the Islamabad government-not likely-and The News of Pakistan accused the drone campaign of  "perishing 687 innocent Pakistani civilians" in 60 separate strikes, while only "killing 14 wanted al Qaeda leaders."

While the drone campaign presents an obvious strategic danger in further enflaming anti-American passions in this part of the world, the more subtle ethical problems one could associate with the drone wars have never been suitably explored on this side of the war despite the frequent appearances of droned combat in mainstream media. After all, summary executions and state-sponsored assassination are technically illegal and U.S. strikes in Pakistan have violated the sovereignty of a nation we are not at war with. Somehow the drones effectively hide the bloody hand of an extrajudicial killing behind their essential technological coolness.

Israel first innovated the use of "targeted assassinations" in an effort to suppress its political and military opponents deeply entrenched in Palestinian communities while purporting to keep Arab civilian casualties to a minimum. We have come to accept the idea of such state acts of targeted murder and mayhem, but when they began, the Israelis at least understood that they were treading (stomping?) on new ethical low ground: high-tech summary executions with often high explosives the means of state sponsored assassination. Retired IDF Colonel Daniel Reisner, spoke frankly to the Israeli media (in the aftermath of the inexplicably indiscriminate use of drone attacks during the recent Gaza incursion ) about the role drone strategy and its like plays in "pushing the boundaries of what is acceptable in war."

"What we are seeing now is a revision of international law," Reisner said, quoted in The Guardian. "If you do something for long enough, the world will accept it. The whole of international law is now based on the notion that an act that is forbidden today becomes permissible if executed by enough countries.

"International law progresses through violations. We invented the targeted assassination thesis and we had to push it."

Now the U.S. seems determined to join the Israelis' imaginative renovations of international law. While it is a laudable goal to limit noncombatant mortality, the inhuman distance effected by a reliance on drones threatens to further numb us to the human toll of this war. Would we feel the same about our targeted assassination policy if we had to send a team of actual U.S. service members into Afghan and Pakistan villages to pull an up-close-and-personal trigger against the heads of our enemies? I doubt it. Such acts should provoke actual queasiness among them and moral nausea among the U.S. general public. The drones of course do not suffer from such queasies, and, when we turn our God-given judgment over to the drones, apparently neither do we.