Saturday, January 26, 2013

Saturday Video: Nova's "Rise of the Drones"

by Salman Hameed

This week's NOVA episode focused on drone technology. It is an interesting episode, but does not really address some of the more complicated legal and ethical issues of this new form of warfare. I think one of the interesting comments in here is that the use of drones in the warfare at present is where the use of biplanes was right after World War I. That seems like an accurate and frightening statement. Also, what's up with the lighting? Most of the interviewees are shot in ominous light and a low camera angle. It is especially funny with one guy, who says that I would love to show you my new technology, but it is classified.. (ooo aa aah ha ha!).

Here is the NOVA episode, but check out some links to previous posts on the topic, as well as an excerpt from a recent article from Dissent:

Watch Rise of the Drones on PBS. See more from NOVA.

Here is a Pew opinion plot on How the Muslim World sees American science and the Drones:

Also read this piece from this week's The Atlantic responding to some questionable claims about drones by a fewUS experts on Pakistan: Yes, Pakistanis really do hate America's killer drones.

On ethics and legal front, see this earlier post, Ethics, Morality and Legality of Robotic Wars. In addition here is a thoughtful piece on these issues by Michael Walzar from Dissent Magazine: Targeted Killing and Drone Warfare:

Now, does it make any difference if the actual killing is the work of a drone, operated by a technician sitting in an office 3,000 miles away? Surely the same criteria apply to the drone as to any more closely manned machine. Why should we think it different from the sniper’s rifle? The difference is that killing-by-drone is so much easier than other forms of targeted killing. The easiness should make us uneasy. This is a dangerously tempting technology. It makes our enemies more vulnerable than ever before, and we can get at them without any risk to our own soldiers. Of course, intelligence gathering may still be risky, but the drones “see” so much more than any soldier or agent in the field that they make fieldwork seem less important. They combine the capacity for surveillance with the capacity for precise attack. At least, that is the idea, and assuming now that we are rightly in the business of killing, that there are people out there who deserve to be killed, what could be better? 
But here is the difficulty: the technology is so good that the criteria for using it are likely to be steadily relaxed. That’s what seems to have happened with the U.S. Army or with the CIA in Pakistan and Yemen. The overuse of drones and the costs they impose upon the civilian population have been carefully and persuasively documented in the Stanford/NYU Clinics’ report, Living Under Drones. I will focus on only one striking example of how the moral criteria have been relaxed in order to justify the overuse and the costs. According to an article in the New York Times by Jo Becker and Scott Shane, President Obama has adopted “a disputed method for counting civilian casualties” that makes it much easier to call drone attacks “proportionate.” In effect, it “counts all military age males in a strike zone as combatants.” If the targeted insurgent or terrorist leader is surrounded by, or simply in the vicinity of, a group of men who are, say, between the ages of fifteen and sixty (and even drone surveillance can’t be precise about that), an attack is permitted, and everyone who is killed is counted as a legitimate target. But this isn’t targeted killing. 
There are ancient precedents for this sort of thing. According to Thucydides, when the Athenians captured the rebellious city of Melos, they “slew all the men of military age.” And according to the biblical book of Deuteronomy, when the Israelites besieged a city and “God delivers it into your hands…you shall put all its males to the sword.” Since the Deuteronomist goes on to exclude children, the two policies are identical. The new American doctrine isn’t the same. We are not aiming to kill all the men of military age, but we have made them all liable to be killed. We have turned them into combatants, without knowing anything more about them than their (approximate) age. That wasn’t right in ancient Greece or Israel, and it isn‘t right today. 
Drone warfare could take the form of targeted killing, and it could be justified under tough constraints. But the United States now seems to be using drones in a different way, as the instrument of a more general and less focused warfare. Drones make it possible to get at enemies who hide in countries whose governments are probably unwilling and possibly unable to repress or restrain them. This is a war without a front, where the use of ground troops, even commandos, is difficult, sometimes impossible—so drones have been called “the only game in town.” But we should think very carefully before relaxing the targeting rules and turning drones into a weapon like all the others. Their moral and political advantage is their precision, which depends on using them only against individuals whose critical importance we have established and about whom we have learned a great deal. Using them like an advanced form of artillery or like “smart” bombs isn’t morally right or politically wise. 
This last point can be driven home very simply: imagine a world, which we will soon be living in, where everybody has drones.
Yes - the last sentence is worth pondering about. Unfortunately, we will be encountering that world in the very near future. Read the full article here.


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