Begun, the Drone War Has

by Benjamin Studebaker

So yesterday, Rand Paul decided to use a filibuster–an old school, talking filibuster, no less–to stall the approval of Barack Obama’s proposed CIA head, John Brennan. The reason for this is that Rand Paul disapproves of the administration’s use of drones, specifically the administration claim that it could, in a sufficiently dire situation, kill a citizen within the territory of the United States with one. I’ve wanted to do the drone post for a while, but I haven’t gotten around to it, so Rand Paul can consider himself to have inspired me in this one rather trivial respect.

Paul’s specific grievance is that he does not want drones used against non-combatants within the United States. To date, only one American citizen has been deliberately targeted with drones, and that was outside the territorial borders of the US. Paul’s point is broadly academic–the more interesting point is whether or not all of the various drone uses are ethical.

To tackle that question, I divide drone use into several broad categories:

  1. Drones used in formal warfare to kill the enemy.
  2. Drones used informally to kill “enemy combatants” in foreign countries.
  3. Drones used informally to kill “enemy combatants” within the state.
  4. Drones used informally to kill “non-combatants” within the state.

Presumably, Paul only objects to #4, or at least chose to target #4 in this particular incident. There have however been many objections to #2 and #3. Though I have not as of yet heard an objection to #1, I will still address it.

The first thing we must do is recognise what precisely we are talking about when we discuss drones. It is important to note that when I use the term “drone” in this piece, I refer exclusively to armed unpiloted flying machines. I am not referring to unarmed unpiloted flying machines, or to to flightless droids or robots. The drone is a weapon. It is a tool one uses to inflict damage on someone else. It is a very big and very expensive flying gun. While say, attack helicopters double for both military and transportation purposes, drones exist only for surveillance and death. Drones are also not like weapons of mass destruction–their use does not necessarily involve a large amount of collateral damage. Despite media focus on the collateral damage caused by drones, the most common alternative, aerial bombings, kills more civilians as a percentage of its total. Drones are not inherently more deadly to civilians–they are, statistically, less deadly.

In so far as drones are just very fancy flying guns, the ethics governing their use should be broadly similar to those that govern smaller guns carried by soldiers or other kinds of flying guns flown by pilots. Sometimes soldiers mistakenly shoot unintended targets with their guns or bomb them with their flying guns, and sometimes soldiers mistakenly shoot unintended targets with their drones or bomb them with their drones. What it is permissible for an agent of the state to do with a gun it is permissible for an agent of the state to do with a drone.

We would, unless we are absolute pacifists, permit a soldier to kill an enemy in a formal war with a gun, and therefore it is permissible for the soldier to use a drone instead. It may even be the morally superior case, because when the drone is used, the soldier’s life is not put at risk.  So #1 is taken care of.

#2 and #3 are similar in so far as they talk about people the state deems to be enemies but are not part of a formal military arm of any state. This prevents the state from going to war in a formal sense with this organisation, but yet the organisation may pose a significant threat to the state such that it considers lethal force justifiable or necessary. Our views here are clouded by the particulars of the Afghan case. Many of us do not think that the Taliban or Al Qaeda at this point pose a sufficiently substantial threat that we should commit men and machinery to combating them in that part of the world, and view the use of drones there as wasteful or as merely contributing to the popularity of Islamist movement in so far as they result in the radicalising of the bereaved and their surrounding communities. This concern is empirical, not theoretical, however. While the Afghan war may not be a good war, whether or not it is a good war is not determined by which weapons are being used to kill the “enemy combatants”. The opposition to the war would be the same, if not more intense, if we were running daily bombing campaigns with planes or launching ground raids against villages.

It is relatively easy to imagine a case in which killing “enemy combatants” would be justifiable. Just imagine that George W. Bush was right. Say that there really was a credible threat that Al Qaeda would commit a true atrocity on any given day with weapons of mass destruction, and that the only way to eliminate this threat was to kill various specific members of Al Qaeda. While empirically we do not believe this to be so, if in a hypothetical alternate universe it had been true, our moral thoughts would be different, because in that case refraining from killing enemy combatants could lead to many more deaths within our own population. The distinction between #2 and #3, whether or not the “enemy combatant” is within the territory of the United States, hardly seems to matter in this context. If the only way to stop Al Qaeda from detonating a nuclear weapon in New York City is to shoot Osama bin Laden dead, and Osama bin Laden is within the territory of the United States with arrest too risky and with insufficient time to get a warrant, it stands to reason that the state should be permitted to kill him–with a gun, a plane, or a drone. Or all three. Whatever works.

What about #4? Here’s where it gets interesting. Paul’s implication is that a “non-combatant” is a harmless person, but this is not necessarily so. Many criminals are “non-combatants”. They are not members of organisations on some terrorist list or have some pre-established agenda that involves killing Americans. They may just be violent, arbitrary individuals. Imagine that we have a mass shooter who comes to a school during recess and begins killing children. He’s hunting them through the playground, they’re trying to hide wherever they can, behind trees, in the tube slide, or what have you, and he’s taunting them pretending it’s hide and seek and picking them off one by one. Now, say that the police have a drone, and that they can get this drone to the school faster than they can get an officer there. Every moment lost is a moment in which the shooter kills another kid. Surely the police department is morally obliged to send the drone out immediately and kill this fellow with it? We would not begrudge the police the use of their handguns if a criminal genuinely threatened to shoot one of them, and we don’t ask them to get warrants before they fire in those emergency situations.  Begrudging them the use of drones is no more sensible.

Of course, the use of drones, just like the use of guns by police officers, should be well-regulated. In most cases, the state should get a warrant before sicking a drone on someone. But just as there are some circumstances in which a police officer must shoot first and ask questions later, there are some circumstances in which the state must use the drone immediately or risk terrible consequences. No rule should be made without any exceptions, any mitigating circumstances. By pressing the administration to give a universal yes/no commitment, Paul is not taking a comprehensive view of the moral position the state is in. Good regulations are needed and should be added or expanded where they do not exist, but drones themselves are merely tools. Their use is right or wrong based on the results said use produces, not due to any intrinsic characteristics of drones themselves as weapons.

One final thing about this Rand Paul filibuster–Paul knew from the outset that Brennan was going to be confirmed. He took this opportunity to grandstand and make a point. I don’t have a problem with making points, but what I do take issue with is the emotional manipulation of Paul’s use of the filibuster. Paul attempted to look courageously defiant not because that defiance was to serve any immediate practical end, but in order to manipulate the public into sympathising with his position and donating funds to his campaign and to his party. Paul did not use his filibuster to make any kind of broad philosophical argument to appeal to people’s logic. Instead, he used the language of defiance and made bold assertions of principles without justifications for them. His hope is that the viewer will feel intuitive agreement with Paul’s position and support Paul on that basis. In so far as he is successful, he does not advance the cause of free thought or liberty, he degrades these things by reducing the debate to one of feelings and intuitions forming the basis of assertions and counter-assertions. Those that deem him “presidential” demonstrate a deep incompetence with regard to what makes a good argument, and likely also make rather bad voters. They are being misled by their emotional connection to the filibuster as a bold, brave act of honesty. In reality, it is attention-seeking obstructionism. That is all it has always been, and it has never done the least bit of good for the quality of discourse in the United States. The senate would be best off scrapping it.