Opinion

Are US drones ethical?

Whether drones should be used in the US is the wrong question. Americans should be asking: Is it ethical to use drones anywhere? Is it fair to search for security for ourselves at the expense of perpetual insecurity for others?

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    People gather around a vehicle destroyed by a US drone strike last year that was targeting Al Qaeda-linked militants, in the town of Jaar in southern Yemen, Feb. 1. Op-ed contributor Jack Amoureux says drone coverage in Arab media focuses on 'individuals who speak of the psychological terror from the daily presence of drones.... constantly wondering which patterns of behavior drone controllers find suspicious.'
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Recently, concerns about how the US government manages and deploys its fleet of around 7,000 drones have become especially prominent. Drones have become a hot-button issue for a surprisingly diverse set of political actors, but opposition has coalesced around questions of law and procedure, including the constitutional rights of US citizens (those who might be targeted by drone attacks on foreign soil and those whose privacy rights might be violated by surveillance drones over US soil), and the need for greater transparency and regulation.

Some have even raised concerns about the potential use of armed drones by law enforcement in the US. Many companies are now marketing small, armed drones to law enforcement agencies, and some experts see their eventual implementation as “inevitable” – a source of great concern for many.

There is, however, a worrisome void in this debate about US drone policy – the lack of focus on the ethics of drones, whether used domestically or abroad. This neglect puts the United States out of step with the debates that are happening in the areas of the world most affected by drones. Whether or not drones should be employed in the US is the wrong question. Americans should be asking: “Is it ethical to use drones anywhere?”

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In researching media coverage of drones over the past 12 years, I have found striking differences in what is reported in the US press relative to Arab media. US news outlets largely ignore pressing ethical questions about drones as a way to wage war and instead fixate on the technological and strategic innovations of drones, their multiple uses, diplomatic intrigue over downed drones in “unfriendly” countries, and whether drone strikes are legal.

In contrast, Arab media tend to focus on the loss of life among families and communities, the multifaceted costs of drones as weapons, and US disregard for other nations’ sovereignty. In covering the Middle East, Afghanistan, and Pakistan, news sources such as Al Jazeera and Asharq Al-Awsat depict individuals who speak of the psychological terror from the daily presence of drones. They share stories of people constantly wondering which patterns of behavior drone controllers find suspicious.

They also reveal a sense of inferiority and embarrassment when a large, powerful country arrives on (over) their soil to make decisions about who will live and die, how much civilian death is acceptable, and how a “militant” will be defined (loosely, it turns out). Citizens in these countries worry that all of these drones are creating even more extremism and terror at home. And they incredulously ask whether drones are not themselves a form of terror.

The American public is not debating these issues and engaging in dialogue with those most affected by US drone policies. If Americans elicited those voices, we could ask: Are we creating acute conditions of insecurity in other countries when individuals constantly live in fear of death falling from the sky? Is it fair to search for security for ourselves at the expense of perpetual insecurity for others? Are drones really the best alternative for the welfare of everyone, both in the short term and long term?

Domestic and international legal questions about drones reflect deeply held American values, but legal discussions fail to make sense of how these values might be reconciled in the face of specific ethical dilemmas. Nor do they recognize and grapple with the values and anxieties of other communities. And both the Bush and Obama administrations have demonstrated that it is easy to provide legal justification for controversial policies. Legal debates can distract us from urgent ethical questions.

Relationships that feature intense violence and vulnerability deserve deep reflection and deliberation. Indeed, if there are to be “new rules” in a continuing and more expansive war against terror (what the Obama administration calls its Overseas Contingency Operation), America should listen to those who are most impacted by those “new rules.”

Perhaps the prospect of armed drones hovering above Americans is ultimately a productive step for taking these ethical questions seriously if it leads us to imagine how whole populations feel about the continuous possibility that right now, in the company of friends and in their own homes, they could be in the crosshairs of a drone.

Jack L. Amoureux is a visiting assistant professor of politics and international affairs at Wake Forest University who teaches “The Politics of Technology and Violence.”

An earlier version of this piece first appeared in US News & World Report.

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