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November-December 2011

Vol. 36, No. 6


Drones: Critical moral questions

In recent years, what journalist Jane Mayer describes as a "radically new and geographically unbounded use of state-sanctioned lethal force" has become one of the foremost weapons in the U.S. arsenal. Despite significant moral and ethical questions about the use of drones for assassinations in, but also far beyond, Afghanistan and Pakistan, the Obama administration has continued and is apparently expanding their use.

Drone technology is not new. Invented shortly after World War II, drones were used to gather intelligence during the Vietnam War and were modified to fire missiles and drop bombs as early as 2001. Drones can remain in the air for a long time without refueling, record data and attack immediately when a target is detected, making them a dogged and lethal weapon.

In an October 26, 2009 New Yorker article, The Predator War, Mayer wrote about two U.S drone programs, one run by the military and the other by the CIA. "The CIA's program," she said, "is aimed at terror suspects around the world, including in countries where U.S. troops are not based. It was initiated by the Bush administration and, according to Juan Zarate, a counterterrorism adviser in the Bush White House, Obama has left in place virtually all the key personnel. The program is classified as covert, and the intelligence agency declines to provide any information to the public about where it operates, how it selects targets, who is in charge, or how many people have been killed."

Since then, Washington Post investigative reporters Dana Priest and William M. Arkin have conducted extensive research that was published in their new book, Top Secret America: The Rise of the New American Security State. The book documents the "spectacular rise" of the Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC), which has its own drones (as well as its own intelligence division, reconnaissance planes, dedicated satellites and cyber warriors).

According to a September 2 Washington Post article, which was based on Priest and Arkin's book, "Two presidents and three secretaries of defense routinely have asked JSOC to mount intelligence-gathering missions and lethal raids, mostly in Iraq and Afghanistan, but also in countries with which the United States was not at war, including Yemen, Pakistan, Somalia, the Philippines, Nigeria and Syria … The president has given JSOC the rare authority to select individuals for its kill list — and then to kill, rather than capture, them. Critics charge that this individual man-hunting mission amounts to assassination, a practice prohibited by U.S. law. JSOC's list is not usually coordinated with the CIA, which maintains a similar but shorter roster of names."

Brian Terrell, co-coordinator of Voices for Creative Nonviolence, in response to a June 7 Foreign Policy article, "Don't fear the reaper: Four misconceptions about how we think about drones," by Charli Carpenter and Lina Shaikhouni, insisted that the four "misconceptions" the authors list are actually true: Drones are "killer robots;" drones make war easy and game-like, and therefore likelier; drone strikes kill too many civilians; and drones violate the international law of armed conflict.

In "The Psychology of Killer Drones – action against our foes; reaction affecting us," a post on the Fabius Maximus blog, G.I Wilson writes that drones are a "gateway to moral disengagement, dehumanization and de-individuation":

  • Moral disengagement – to mitigate, justify, neutralize or eliminate inhibitions and moral constraints connected to committing acts of violence or crimes using moral justification, advantageous comparison and sanitizing language – to relieve oneself or others of a sense of personal accountability by displacing or diffusing responsibility.
  • Dehumanization – to objectify the enemy, no longer viewing him/her as a human with feelings, hopes, concerns – a form of moral disengagement, such as imagining one's self as a hero or a functionary, thus minimizing the harm done…
  • De-individuation – to disguise, hide within a group or in other ways become anonymous.

The danger seems obvious and public debate, essential. The Obama administration is establishing a series of secret drone bases for counterterrorism purposes in the Horn of Africa and the Arabian Peninsula. From Ethiopia, the Seychelles, Djibouti and the Arabian Peninsula, the United States will maintain "overlapping circles of surveillance in a region where al-Qaeda offshoots could emerge for years to come." ("U.S. assembling secret drone bases in Africa, Arabian Peninsula, officials say," Washington Post, September 21, 2011)

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