Drone policy can be moral policy

Reuters photo In a recent contribution for On Faith, former Chicago Theological Seminary President Susan Brooks Thistlethwaite denounced U.S. drone … Continued


Reuters photo

In a recent contribution for On Faith, former Chicago Theological Seminary President Susan Brooks Thistlethwaite denounced U.S. drone warfare for failing to “conform to Just War theory as developed over centuries of conventional wars.”

Earlier this year, Baptist ethicist David Gushee, in his piece for On Faith, opined against drones as exemplifying a “disturbing combination of American arrogance and self-righteousness.”

In April, an anti-drone letter to President Obama from United Methodist, United Church of Christ, Quaker, Brethren, and Christian Reformed officials declared:

More carefully, an ecclesial representative of the Catholic bishops this year questioned whether drones may violate Just War principles on “discrimination, imminence of the threat, proportionality and probability of success.”

More conservative church leaders and religious ethicists don’t as often address national security issues, so specifically faith-based defense of drone warfare has been rare, although polls show most Americans support drones. The majority of Americans who are pro-drone may exemplify more wisdom than the religious critics.

In many cases drone critics, if not absolute pacifists, are de facto pacifists who cannot imagine a situation when lethal force is ever justified. Often they reinvent Just War into an impossible standard applicable in no real world situation. And even many religious non-pacifists imagine that Just War’s intent is entirely a restraint on force, when actually the tradition sometimes commands force in defense of the innocent and wider justice.

Do drones defend the innocent and promote a wider justice? All warfare, like all human activity, is morally flawed. But demanding perfection only guarantees paralysis. Drone critics typically imagine that neutralizing terrorists is actually a conventional law enforcement challenge rather than a cause for military force. They expect or imply that increased international collaboration would compel local regimes to apprehend and lawfully detain terrorists.

Ideally they would be right. But Christian ethics and most other traditional religious perspectives understand that no human behavior, least of all statecraft in pursuit of national security, can assume the ideal. The world is fallen, full of evil, human frailty, and limited capacity. The reality is that terrorist havens are usually in regions that are virtually ungoverned, like Somalia, or have local rulers unwilling or unable to take action against them, like parts of Pakistan, Afghanistan and Yemen. Where there is competent and willing local law enforcement, the U.S. is not launching drones. Where such law enforcement is impossible, what then?

Religious critics of drones rarely offer specific alternatives. Instead, they morally fault drones for imprecision, susceptible to harming innocents, and impersonally guided by desk-bound pilots who, with their bureaucratic overlords, may be cavalier because they are themselves not at risk. The anti-drone letter from Mainline Protestants cited “remote, technical warfare,” which has the “potential to encourage overuse and extension of the policy to more countries and more perceived threats.” But almost all forms of modern warfare are “remote” and “technical.” Combatants no longer typically battle each other with swords and lances.

Absent the option of effective law enforcement against terrorists, the range of options include conventional aerial bombing or cruise missiles, both of which are pretty “remote,” or a military personnel excursion similar to the U.S. Navy SEAL mission that dispatched Osama bin Laden. None of these options avoids the possibility of accidentally killing innocents. Drones may in fact be likelier to be precise. All of these options, no less than drones, enrage and terrify local populations, especially if they politically sympathize with the terrorists. And sending armed personnel onto the ground in dangerous territory obviously subjects them to possible death or capture.

Unlike most religious critics of drones, the Catholic letter admitted the legitimacy of national defense against terrorism. But like other critics, it suggested counter-terrorism is “primarily a law enforcement activity,” and urged a wider “range of economic, political and diplomatic responses in order to get at the root causes and injustices that terrorists exploit.” But what to do when aid programs, diplomacy and international collaboration fail? Or what if such collaboration actually dictates drones strikes, with local regimes tacitly encouraging their use against terrorist regime opponents they cannot reach?

American idealism often imagines that American power can achieve any goal with good will and sufficient exertion. But in the real world not all terrorists and their supporters can be neutralized with a subpoena, a government check, or high-minded mediation. The Christian Just War tradition is not a rigid formula with which clerics and academics badger governments with impossibly lofty standards. It’s a tool primarily for practitioners of statecraft to achieve an approximate justice with the available means in an always flawed situation. Lethal force is acceptable and sometimes morally imperative if more innocents will suffer without it.

Drones that kill terrorists are among the most precise weapons ever developed. They often are morally preferable to the available alternatives. All governments are ordained to protect their people. And any government that shuns the available tools in defense of its people and in pursuit of justice has failed its vocation.

Mark Tooley is president of the Institute on Religion and Democracy.

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  • leibowde84

    If you are in communication with known terrorists, you should expect that you will be watched, caught up to, and killed. In this dangerous war, it is necessary to present such an immense threat to those who are thinking of associating with these scumbags that they back down out of fear for their own lives. If a US citizen is an enemy of the state, then he has given up his constitutional rights. And, since these drones aren’t used to kill anyone on American Soil, I don’t see a problem.

    It is a better alternative than a ground war, and it shows the terrorists that we don’t even have to risk the lives of American soldiers to get them.

  • Hildy J

    While I agree with the concept of your argument and feel that drones do have a place in a ‘just war’, the current drone policy still fails. Drones are assassination weapons, which is fine, but assassinations weapons, if they are to be distinct from IEDs and suicide bombers, need to be targeted. Too often, we have no name for the target of a drone strike, just ‘suspected terrorists’ and that’s not acceptable.

  • Hildy J

    You’ll be happy to know that the terrorists believe in the same things that you do. The people in the WTC were guilty, in their mind, of supporting the American war machine and therefore they should have expected to be killed.

  • leibowde84

    Nope. Not really at all. The terrorists idea that everyone working in the WTC was guilty simply because of their employer is idiotic. It makes no logical sense and is merely a result of ignorance and hatred.

    The idea that terrorists are murderers is accurate. By murder, of course, I mean directly acting to kill innocent people. By innocent people I, of course, mean people who did not directly act to harm anyone physically by intent.

    Thus, the terrorist idea of guilt is unfounded and illogical. It has no real meaning and should be ignored. The guild of terrorists is irrefutable. They are fighting for religion to take control of social situation which, in all respects, is complete evil.

    They are free to change the definition of innocence and guilt all they want, but it doesn’t change the fact that the people in the WTC were innocent civilians and terrorists are most certainly not.

  • leibowde84

    Don’t give in or respect the idiotic, unfounded ideals of terrorism. You are giving credit where it is most certainly not due. And, in my opinion at least, ignorance is no defense against a drone attack. We need to send the message that if you go down that road, no matter what your reasoning, you will be killed.

  • Hildy J

    Until we can be sure the people are ‘on the road’ instead of just going to a wedding, we shouldn’t push the button. Trying to terrorize terrorists is terrorism, regardless of the uniform or lack thereof.

  • WmarkW

    The jurisdiction of a government is defined by its land borders, and this causes numerous difficulties in the realm of international finance and communication, among other fields. Combatting international terrorism would be like law enforcement, except that the criminals organize in distant lands. That makes it like war, except that the actors are not agents of their government. It’s a new type of war for a new age, and the leaders that have had to fight those, have always drawn the consternation of the traditionalists.

  • leibowde84

    You are making a huge assumption. I trust our government to wait until quality information is found to identify someone as communicating with terrorists (which is more than enough, in my opinion). Even being friends with them is bad enough. These are the most vile people on the planet. They literally kill women for wanting to be educated. They kill people for who their families are. They kill people for making fun of their religion. They kill people for burning the Quran. We merely kill people who pose a physical threat to our friends.

    Further, in terms of Israel, they are not willing to cohabitate with westerners and western culture in general. They are free to hold this prejudice, but they must understand that they will have a ton of enemies as a result.

  • leibowde84

    Israel was created as a result of the Holocaust. These weirdos actually claim that it didn’t even happen (nuts). They need to be willing to share their communities with even those that they hate. Until they are, I have absolutely no respect for them.

  • Hildy J

    You shouldn’t just kill people you don’t like.That’s what terrorists do and they use our actions to validate theirs.

  • leibowde84

    I’m not saying that at all. My feelings and the feelings of Americans don’t matter in this decision. We should kill only those that have planned, acted directly, or conspire to kill innocent people. Again, by innocent people, I mean anyone who has not directly planned, acted or conspired to kill anyone. Do you think it is acceptable that the Islamists judge you and I as non-innocent simply because of where our home is located and where we work? Am I a threatening force to them by going to work everyday, caring for my family, paying my bills, going to see movies, going to concerts, going to strip clubs (I’m sure they love this), etc.? Should we give them any respect for these irrational views.

    I understand that they are frustrated, as they don’t have a chance of getting what they want. But, if they think that they are morally justified in killing innocent people who have no interest in doing them any direct harm, then they should be taken out of the picture.

  • ShahJahan572

    So you think only terrorists are killed in drone attacks?? Statistics from Pakistan show that less than 10 % militants have been killed in drone strikes whereas more than 3500 people including women and children have lost their lives.And this is only what is recorded.How do you justify that?They have attacked Madrasas(schools) for kids,funeral processions and wedding ceremonies also.Just put yourself in the shoes of innocent miserable people living their and if your heart beat changes.If it doesn’t after seeing the plight of those victims than there is no hope left for you.

  • ThomasBaum

    One of the things about reason and logic in this technological age is that we can rationalize and sanitize pretty much everything except our own coming home in body bags.

  • leibowde84

    Any school that teaches children to despise western culture is not a school. It is merely a housing for hatred, misinformation, and brain-washing.