June 17, 2012
The Drone War
Death from above, prosecuted by a technologically advanced and foreign civilization, is a standard science fiction trope. The hero typically must execute some ingenious plot to exploit a flaw in the foreign tech to save the human race (or our equivalent in the fictional universe in which the story is set). Self-sacrifice is a common theme, and indeed in more than a few storylines, the human capacity for compassion and self-sacrifice is the secret weapon which ultimately saves the day.
It is astounding, then, that we see fit to hand such a similar recruitment story to terrorist organizations in the Middle East. American drones have been waging a now well-covered, but still mostly supported, war that has been vastly expanded under Obama. We fail to understand how individuals in the countries we bomb perceive us. If they know us only through the bombs we drop, or possibly the polemics made by our political leaders and broadcast throughout the world, they will not hesitate to take extreme measures to protect themselves from what they cannot possibly recognize as another part of humanity.
Obama has been particularly active in pursuing this war. The bar for how important a target must be to warrant a drone strike has been lowered, and collateral damage has been high. And this, so far, is to say nothing of the claim made by the administration that it has the right to kill American citizens. This question is important not because the president should be more morally hesitant to kill American citizens than other individuals, but because the Constitution is supposed to protect citizens from this sort of thing, and ceding this power to the president, or for that matter any part of the government, sets a scary precedent. I don't believe either Obama or Romney will begin assassinating Americans without grave reason or within our borders, but once the conversation shifts to asking who rather than whether we should kill, the precedent has already been set.
We send machines to drop bombs in communities who have either limited contact with the west, or none at all. In doing so, we mask our humanity and push people toward the extremists. We cannot possibly expect individuals in communities we bomb to extend compassion to the builders of the killer drones any more than we can expect them to extend compassion to the drones themselves.