It’s perplexing to hear people say, in defence of drone warfare, that drones are ‘state of the art’, precise and effective. This is a bit like saying, ‘alright, fine, a drone is a murder weapon, but it’s the latest in murder weapons, the most en vogue.’ The controversial dimension to this issue arises less from the mechanical efficiency of drones and more from the inevitable question raised by their use: what gives us the right to commit murder?
The U.S. has been engaged in a drone attack campaign in north-west Pakistan, particularly the Federally Administered Tribal Areas, since 2004. The drones target suspected terrorists and, as stated above, are relatively precise and effective. However, civilian deaths do occur due to missed targets or mistaken intelligence. It’s difficult to pin down an exact figure, but civilian death toll claims range from 67 to 789 since 2008. The UK SSFCA is currently in the process of being sued as a result of GCHQ delivering locational intelligence to the CIA relating to Noor Khan, a non-terrorist victim that suffered injuries and lost family members in a 2011 drone strike. The UK is now preventing Khan from visiting the UK, so perhaps this is an apt time to place the morality of drone warfare under intense scrutiny.
The issue doesn’t boil down straightforwardly to a question of whether or not murder is wrong, of course - there are several contentious issues underlying the drone dilemma. There’s the fall out from 9/11, the idea that terrorism is now essentially a war between the U.S. and the Islamic world, and of course, utilitarianism. Each of these issues should be looked at in turn.
Firstly, 9/11 was a tragedy. It should have never happened and nothing like it should ever occur again. However, slow-but-steady mass murder can’t be the correct, or even the most effective, response to the threat of its recurrence. Tens, or hundreds, of civilians have already died in drone attacks, and that’s as far as we know. How much longer can we justify viewing these civilians as mere collateral damage? In the Khan v SSFCA judgment, Khan describes his home as a community ‘plagued with fear’ as drones buzz perpetually overhead. Responding to terrorist attacks in a manner that creates such an atmosphere in another country is rather like saying, ‘we can do exactly what you do, but we can do it with better technology, and in a more systematic fashion.'
The point about this being a ‘war’ between the U.S. and the Islamic world can be knocked off the table in one swipe: by all existing legal standards, the term ‘war on terror’ is a misnomer, the primary reason for this being that wars occur between states, not between states and insurgent groups. Reprieve UK, the organisation representing Khan, gives a succinct assessment of the various legal issues underpinning the situation on their website. They say that GCHQ employees that assisted the CIA in directing armed attacks in Pakistan are liable not only under domestic criminal law as secondary parties to murder, but may also be guilty of conduct ancillary to crimes against humanity.
Now, the complexities underlying the utilitarian dimension of this debate are far too extensive, and largely beyond my comprehension, to warrant a proper discussion of them here, but the essential reasoning is: if killing one terrorist suspect now could prevent hundreds dying in a terrorist attack in the future, then it must be justifiable. However, let’s make no mistake: violent terrorist and anti-terrorist sentiments have one thing in common, they both spread as a result of rage and fear. So, even if we look at this pragmatically: launching a campaign of terror in Islamic countries hardly feels like a sensible way to stifle terrorist sympathies. It’s understandable that we are in the process of seeking vengeance for terrorist attacks that have already occurred, but after Iraq, Afghanistan, and now drone strikes, let’s not wait until we’ve killed thousands of civilians simply because, like the Lannisters, Westerners always pay their debts. We need to tread with caution here because, through this campaign, we’re coming dangerously close to making the assertion that Western lives are more precious than any others.
As the self-appointed moral compass of the world, as well as alleged promoters of fairness and transparency, we shouldn’t be too shy to ask ourselves some challenging questions. For instance, why has Noor Khan been denied entry into the UK? If the whole operation is completely vanilla, why shouldn’t an innocent victim of a misplaced drone strike be permitted to seek justice in the very country that helped place him in such a dire situation, if he so desires? In this situation, you would think the UK government’s attitude towards Khan would be one of deepest apology rather than a cold shoulder.
I could drop a Ghandi quote on violence now, but people only do that when the logical basis of their argument is fragile, so I’ll save that card for another time. But a well-known man once said that while one death is a tragedy, a thousand is a statistic. Unless we want to be remembered as the generation that had the same collective mentality as Joseph Stalin, let’s encourage our foreign policy administrators to re-think their stance. It doesn’t matter that the civilian death toll has not yet reached the thousands, even one civilian death, at the hands of a foreign government for reasons that are not absolutely essential, is too much.