When a new technology develops, society must sometimes rush to catch up to its ethical ramifications.
Take drones, for instance. A study by the Bureau of Investigative Journalism estimates that U.S. drone strikes killed as many as 3,337 people in Pakistan alone from June 2004 to September 2012. For many Americans, the issue of targeted killings by unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), or drones, is murky, complicated by the need for national security in a post-9/11 world. It rises occasionally to public attention, as it did following the reported killing, May 29, of the Pakistan Taliban’s second in command, but the questions raised by these events quickly fade.
There’s something about the detached nature of a drone strike that feels cleaner than, say, unilaterally invading a sovereign nation. However, the Pakistan body count rivals even that of the 4,409 U.S. troops killed in Iraq. This should give Americans and our leaders pause, as it suggests our usage of this technology far outstrips the amount of reflection we’ve done on the subject. The distance many people feel from this issue doesn’t reduce the ethical concerns involved, nor does it make the negative impact of drone usage any less severe.
The widely recognized just war theory is the Catholic Church’s guideline for determining when it’s acceptable to go to war. It includes determining whether an attack is imminent, whether the force used is discriminate and proportional to the threat posed, and whether there is probability of success. Of the people killed by U.S. drones in Pakistan (we have also used them in Yemen and Somalia), as many as 883 were civilians, including 176 children. These people probably weren’t planning imminent terror attacks. They were not living in a war zone. Are civilian casualties on this scale proportional or discriminate? Would we tolerate such drone casualties in our own nation?
As for chances of success, it’s easy to make the case that drones push us farther from peace. Targeted killings sow anger and unrest among the countless people whose lives are upended. With a quick missile strike from a drone here and there, we imagine our country made safer. But the reality is that this policy perpetuates violence, radicalizing people who otherwise wouldn’t be hostile toward the United States.
This makes it difficult to justify targeted killings under Catholic just war theory. But just war theory only applies to action in war zones, and the United States isn’t at war with Pakistan, Yemen or Somalia, making the moral justification for drones even more remote.
The picture becomes even starker when one takes into account other messy issues.
Some 50 other countries have drones, and drone manufacturers have made their products available to domestic law enforcement for surveillance. It wouldn’t take much to weaponize them.
Apart from the harm to victims, drones may be harmful to their operators as well. According to the Air Force, nearly half of drone operators report high levels of stress, even though they operate from the safety of military bases, often stateside, going home to their families every night. They observe their targets for days on end, becoming intimately familiar with their lives, before making the life-or-death decision. We should be more concerned with humanity, including people in countries very far away and with lives that seem different from our own.
Current research is working to make drones fully automated, to reduce collateral damage and psychological trauma by removing “nuisances” like human error and emotion. Do we really want machines and computers making life and death decisions? These are realities we would have to contend with as we adapt to life with this technology.
These and other questions may have led President Obama to his May 23 announcement that the administration is tightening standards for drone attacks, ultimately scaling back their use. The answers to the questions do not come easily, but we owe it to ourselves to keep asking the questions on the moral gravity involved. The use of attack drones should be inseparable from the question of whether it promotes peace and security around the world.
The author is bishop of the Catholic Diocese of Des Moines, Iowa, and chairman of the Committee on International Justice and Peace of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.