Monday, July 23, 2012

NYT Has It Wrong On Drone Ethics

I just saw an article suggesting that drone strikes were per se immoral because they allowed attack without risk. The crux of the paper's argument is a comparison of drone strikes to a tale told by Plato about a murder committed by a man who wanted to murder his king in order to marry the king's wife, whom he'd seduced, and then install himself as monarch. The comparison struck me as intensely strained: the motive of greed and the act of murder certainly engender the disgust described by the article, yes. But is self-defense killing part of either? I think the article completely misses the boat. We're not bombing suspected enemies to better seduce their wives or daughters, but to reduce the murders being carried out on our own doorstep by a variety of shoe bombers, underwear bombers, or unstable psychiatrists – all inspired by firebrand speeches exhorting listeners to murder strangers based on their citizenship rather than their imminent danger (or even their beliefs; they'll take any scalp they can get, if it's got the right passport).

There may be problems with some of the killings approved by the current administration, but the problems with those cases won't go away if drones are replaced with human assailants.

To the extent our methods are illegal and wrong, on the other hand, at least it's not unclear whose responsible. One gem from that last link is a quote from former CIA director Hayden:
“I have lived the life of someone taking action on the basis of secret O.L.C. memos, and it ain’t a good life. Democracies do not make war on the basis of legal memos locked in a D.O.J. safe.”
We definitely need to know with whom we're at war and why. The "record" (if there is such a thing today) of the incumbent will be subject to a referendum in November, and playing games with the moral basis of our decisions to kill will not aid the electorate in deciding who has the right of it. Democracies may need to keep secret things like troop locations and tactical matters, but the basis of our political leaders' warmaking arguments is plainly a matter of public interest rather than of operational security.

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