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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.