Good Reads: Weighing the tactics in battles over drones, hackers, and abortion rights

A roundup of some of the week's most insightful articles from around the Internet.

Courtesy of Lt. Col Leslie Pratt/US Air Force/Reuters
This undated image courtesy of the US Air Force shows a MQ-1 Predator unmanned aircraft.

In America, US citizens fret about what they see as the decline of their nation and its influence in the world. The economy is ho-hum, confidence is shaken, and smaller nations like Iran, South Africa, and Venezuela are increasingly talking back. Here in Afghanistan, the Obama administration is planning to gradually draw down military forces as it did in Iraq a few years back.

But the US hasn't halted its use of military force against US enemies abroad. Instead, the US is making greater use of new tools, such as the Unmanned Aerial Vehicle, commonly known as a drone. Once used primarily for surveillance, drones now carry smart bombs and other precision weapons, and they are increasingly used against certain individuals seen by the US as dangerous, often in places where the US is not technically at war.

While drones can be incredibly effective, on a mission-by-mission basis, killing suspected radicals such as Anwar Al-Awlaki in Yemen, for instance, they can also be equally controversial. Pakistan’s government, for instance, has come close to breaking its military cooperation because of the US use of drones inside Pakistani airspace. And in a persuasive opinion piece in Foreign Policy, David Rohde (who has won two Pulitzer Prizes, one as a former Christian Science Monitor correspondent in Bosnia), writes that excessive reliance on drones may actually backfire politically on the Obama administration.

For every suspected terrorist killed by a drone, there may be dozens of others who are drawn to open hostility toward the US, or in worst cases, to terrorist causes because of what they see as overbearing US power. Mr. Rohde is no tie-dye-wearing peacenik. Captured and held by the Taliban for seven months, he says he believes that “drone strikes should be carried out -- but very selectively.”

“For me, the bottom line is that both governments' approaches are failing. Pakistan's economy is dismal. Its military continues to shelter Taliban fighters it sees as proxies to thwart Indian encroachment in Afghanistan. And the percentage of Pakistanis supporting the use of the Pakistani Army to fight extremists in the tribal areas -- the key to eradicating militancy -- dropped from a 53 percent majority in 2009 to 37 percent last year. Pakistan is more unstable today than it was when Obama took office.” 

How dangerous are hackers?

Unlike Taliban or Al Qaeda militants, computer hackers generally don’t carry weapons. But in the eyes of the US government, they are no less dangerous. A US National Security Council assessment warned last year that computer hacker organizations had the potential to shut down America’s electrical power grids. Technically speaking, the Security Council is right. A well-designed computer virus can do a lot of damage. Ask the Iranians, whose nuclear power development system was nearly destroyed by a computer worm called Stuxnet.

But not all computer hackers are alike. Some like Kim Schmitz – recently arrested in New Zealand for music piracy and criminal copyright infringement – use their powers to make money, and lots of it. Some, like Julian Assange of Wikileaks and the secretive hackers collective of Lulz Security (LulzSec) and Anonymous, use their powers to make a political point. This latter group of “hacktivists” gets more attention, largely because their efforts are aimed at major political issues, and because the target of their attacks are branches of the US government and major multinational corporations that they view as loathsome. After the company PayPal shut down all future payments to WikiLeaks, because of pressure from US law enforcement, an untold number of computer hackers allied with Anonymous briefly shut down the PayPal site.

But how dangerous are these people, really? Yochai Benkler argues in the latest edition of Foreign Affairs that Anonymous is more interested in using “distributed denial of service” attacks like the one against PayPal to make a political point. Few computer hackers are violent, in the same way that only a few antiwar protesters in the 1960s were violent. Overreacting to them through heavy law-enforcement operations or new restrictive laws, he writes, would do long-term damage to America’s major strengths of freedom of expression and innovation: “…surely there must be a place for civil disobedience and protest that is sufficiently disruptive to rouse people from complacence. Viewing Anonymous purely as a matter of crime reduction or national security will lead governments to suppress it and ignore any countervailing considerations. A more appropriate, balanced response to Anonymous’ attacks would err on the side of absorbing damage and making the hacks’ targets resilient, rather than aggressively surveilling and prosecuting the network and its participants.” 

US-style abortion battles make their way to the UK

One final note. There was a time when Britons would watch American domestic politics and shudder. Issues that got precious little attention in Britain, such as public health care or abortion rights, dominated American politics. Polite by nature, Brits would confide in each other that the Americans were, well, “mad.”

Now, according to Liam Hoare, in an article in The Atlantic magazine this week, the abortion issue has crossed the pond to Britain, and British evangelicals are using much of the same rhetoric and techniques of protest that their American brethren use. In his piece, Hoare describes a host of tactics that will be familiar to many Americans: rallying outside abortion clinics with photos of aborted fetuses, equating abortion with murder, and comparing the number of abortions to the number of Jews killed during the Nazi Holocaust. To date, British pro-life activists haven’t turned to violence, such as homemade bombs or the assassination of gynecologists, as has occurred in the United States. But abortion rights activists worry that with as the debate in Britain becomes more emotional, this may just be a matter of time.

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