War, assassination and flying killer robots

As a weapon of war, there’s nothing wrong with drones, aka unmanned aerial vehicles, aka flying killer robots.  Saturation bombing of German cities during World War Two killed many more people indiscriminately.  Drones don’t burn and disfigure as napalm does.  In Laos, which Secretary of State Hillary Clinton visited lately, people are still being killed by cluster bombs dropped 40 or so years ago during the Vietnam Conflict; this won’t happen with drones.  And it’s not as if storming enemy territory with troops, like the Marines entering Falluja in Iraq, will save lives on either side.

No, the problem is not a problem with the technology.  The technology, as a war technology, is a good technology.  The question of drone warfare is a Constitutional question.  It is the pretense that drone warfare is not really warfare, and is not subject to Constitutional checks and balances or any other kind of accountability.

The United States has attacked Pakistan and attacked Yemen, killing bystanders, including women and children—not on the scale of Dresden or Hiroshima, but to the loved ones of those who die, it is a scale that is large enough.  We as a country are not at war with the governments of those nations, but we’re increasing the number of people who consider themselves at war with us.   Any normal human being will be enraged if someone kills his grandfather or little baby sister.  There are cultures in which it is a sacred duty to take revenge on the killers of your grandfather or little baby sister.   Month-by-month President Obama is increasing the number of people with a sacred duty to take revenge on us Americans.

President Obama claims he has the authority to kill any person, any place in the world, who in his judgment is a terrorist.  He is said to have a “hit” list with 30 names at any given time.  The hits do not have to be by drone.  Ordinary assassination will do.  The names of the people on the list, and the criteria for putting them on the list, is a secret.  If the ruler of a country has the authority to do anything against anyone, based on his personal judgment, and to keep it a secret, what power does he lack to be a dictator?

I’m willing to accept that Anwar al-Alwaki, the American-born radical Yemeni cleric killed by U.S. drones, was a bad person.   I’m not so sure about his 16-year-old son, also targeted for killing.  But even I accept, for the sake of argument, that there was no other way to bring al-Alwaki to justice, I would rather that an evil person remain at large than live under a regime in which the chief of state claims the right to kill at will.  Suppose we learned that Hugo Chavez or Vladimir Putin or somebody else maintained a secret list of 30 enemies of the state, selected at his sole discretion and marked for death.  What would we think?  Wouldn’t we think a line had been crossed?  How is it different with the chief executive is named Barack Obama?

Another aspect is drone warfare is that it makes it easier to be killers, but it diminishes the role of warriors.  The U.S. Air Force already has more trained drone operators (essentially highly-skilled video game players) that it does actual pilots.  It is tempting to substitute technology for fighting men, but the time may come when the United States once again faces a real threat to its existence, as it did during World War Two, and we may find that gadgets alone will not save us.

Click on The Lethal Presidency of Barack Obama for an article by Tom Junod for Esquire.

Click on Obama’s killings challenged again for follow-up by Glenn Greenwald.

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