By Patricia Lee Sharpe
Until a couple of days ago I’d envisioned a hypothetical piece falling under the rubric of “what goes around comes around.” In short, if we use drones to kill and worms (or viruses) to disrupt, the people we don’t like will be returning the favor, the sooner or later of it depending on the rate of technology transfer. And whadyaknow! They have them already—drones anyway. Bashar al Assad’s regime is using reconnaissance drones in what’s gradually being recognized as a very nasty civil war. So the future is here. This means that Americans need to do some very clear-headed thinking about drones—and about cyberwarfare, too—and when I say “we” I don’t mean a few guys in a bunker making decisions the rest of us won’t have access to for 50 years or more.
The U.S. deploys drones (pilotless aircraft) for spying and killing in many places. When activated from a command center, the killer drones fire powerful missiles at selected targets. The U.S. has thousands of drones in the air or ready for use.
Many questions pop up when it comes to waging war with drones. (1) Are these gizmos legal under the rules of war? If so, what rules? (2) Legal or not, is it moral or ethical to use them? (3) Was it smart for the U.S. to pioneer this sort of war? (4) What do American citizens have a right to know about drones or any other weapons deployed on their behalf?
The Abuse of Words
For starters, however, let’s get rid of the “surgical strike” metaphor. The idea that bad guys and only really bad guys are taken out by the lethal drone treatment consoles too many who are otherwise squeamish about remotely controlled slaughter. Every day surgeons make mistakes that are followed by funerals that shouldn’t have been. Drone “mistakes” fill whole cemeteries.
Excessive mortality from bombing and shelling used to be called “collateral damage,” as if dead people mattered as little as shattered windows. Today’s equally cynical, but more sophisticated verbal coverup works by redefinition. We’ve been told that any post-pubertal male who’s killed along with the targeted individual is presumed also to have been a terrorist. What a brilliant statistical coup! Aim for one. Get ten. Guilt by propinquity. Probably the dead women and girls should be counted, too. If they didn’t divorce the guy, run away from home or disinherit a son, they probably hated America, too. Guilt by association. Ker-boom!
There have been many attempts to cover up an inconvenient truth about drones, which is: even when guided by up-to-date from-the-air-and-on-the-ground information, drone management does not yield perfect selectivity. If a well-known bad guy is driving through a desert on a little used road with no turn-offs, those with him probably are collaborators or comrades-in-arms, and probably the missile can find the right man in the right car. Roll back the tape and consider this: the subject may actually have been at said address, but it takes mere minutes to say good-bye a trife early, jump in a car and be a mile away, thereby leaving unfingered people behind to take the taking out. Ker-boom!
Here are some other ways in which good info turns out to be useless or mistaken and a supposedly pinpointed strike requires apologies and long-winded explanations that are very bad for the American image: the target changes his schedule at the last minute and never gets to the rendezvous, he suspects a trap, his vehicle breaks down en route, the missile was delivered to the wrong address or was a few dozen feet off target, hitherto reliable informants didn’t know or mention that there was going to be some sort of traditional family conclave in the same place at the same time, etc, etc., etc. Ker-boom!
I can hear it now. Chuckle! Chuckle! You can’t make an omelet without cracking eggs. Which only brings us back to the prison of inappropriate metaphors. Give me two eggs. I can beat them into a superb omelet—or I can take the longer view. I’ll end up with two laying hens and dozens of eggs—or a pair of doves, for that matter. Diplomacy is getting where you need to go without breaking eggs.
Smugness is Not a Good Idea
More ominously to the present point, given the inevitable ubiquity of drone availability and the likelihood that drone range can only increase, it might be a good idea for all of us heretofore smug and safe Americans to consider the distance between houses in our own neighborhoods. Would our families survive if the house next door harbored targeted terrorists? Is the kids’ school a safe distance from any conceivable target? And so on. And what about incoming missiles that go off course? From human error. From mechanical or electronic malfunction. Either way, someone dies.
Have you made your funeral plans? Your son’s? Your daughter’s? Americans are pretty safe now, but that won’t be the case in the near future—and the big danger won’t come from cells of amateurs manipulated by FBI agents or from adolescents inflamed by internet propaganda. If we end up on the receiving end of a drone delivery, you might say, given our own way of waging war, that we asked for it.
Worms That Turn
Space is running out here, and I haven’t even begun to describe what could happen if serious cyberattacks were directed at the United States rather than Iran. I don’t mean the kind of hacking that annoys large institutions with sloppy security or even, on occasion, the Pentagon, which has also had a few embarrassing encounters with cyber intruders. I mean a worm or virus that shuts down the whole country in this age of massive interconnection. Evidently it was a Russian hacking genius who discovered the Flame virus and Stuxnet, too. What if he were working for a an actively hostile Russian government? Who’d break his code?
My purpose here isn’t to fear monger or start a panic but to suggest that there are some very powerful reasons why the international community needs to do a little updating of the conventions of war and peace now that technology has complicated our mutual vulnerabilities—and our responsibilities as human actors. Part Two will address these urgencies by looking more directly at the four questions that introduced this discussion. Given attempts to conceal, minimize, mischaracterize and otherwise mislead the public about the use of drones, it is particularly important to determine just how much secrecy is necessary to protect Americans and to what it extent it serves only to deprive Americans of the open debate about means and ends that is necessary to democracy. Excessive secrecy does not protect. It infantalizes the many and empowers the few.