While the United States drone program has been controversial for some time, recent scrutiny from the American public and Congress has brought light to the issue as the Office of the President released a “white paper” outlining the legal justification for targeting suspected terrorists, some being U.S. citizens, on foreign soil.
Some are concerned about the seeming lack of transparency and oversight outside of the executive branch outlined in the “white paper.” First, the President personally signs off on every drone strike after being presented with evidence, and, second, drone strikes on U.S. citizens are not allowed without evidence that the citizen is a member of the leadership of al-Qa’ida or another terrorist organization.
As stated in Section 3 of the U.S. Constitution, “Treason against the United States, shall consist only in levying War against them, or in adhering to their Enemies, giving them Aid and Comfort.” This is the only crime outlined in the Constitution, and it is true that U.S. citizens involved in terrorist operations are “adhering to… Enemies, giving them Aid and Comfort.”
Everyone must remember that drone strikes never happen on U.S. soil, and there are far more pressing dangers to freedom in the U.S. than drones, such as warrantless wiretapping and communications monitoring allowed by the PATRIOT Act.
The fundamental moral reason for supporting drone strikes is the smaller proportion of civilian deaths attributable to drones relative to civilian deaths during the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Much of the anger over drone strikes, particularly abroad, has been due to accidental deaths of civilians because of close proximity to terrorists or poor military intelligence. Since 9/11, two distinct strategies on combatting terrorism abroad have emerged.
The first, boots-on-the-ground military deployment, was a strategic failure; the U.S. military was, and continues to be, mired in conflict against insurgents angered by what they see as a U.S. occupation of their land. The second, referred to as “smart power” by the Obama administration, has involved targeted drone attacks on terrorists, cyber-sabotage and Special Forces attacks, such as the killing of Osama bin Laden.
The boots-on-the-ground strategy has caused significant collateral damage both in civilian deaths and economic impact. A Brown University study estimates 132,000 civilian deaths during the U.S. Wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, but, according to Wired, this is a conservative estimate. That is an atrocious statistic and outnumbers American military deaths by more than 20-to-1. In contrast, The Guardian, using estimates from the Bureau of Investigative Journalism puts the number of civilian deaths from drone strikes between 556 and 1,128.
The targeted nature of drone strikes has allowed us to root out and eliminate terrorists and leaders of al-Qa’ida without sending hundreds of thousands American troops into the area to look for terrorists and put American lives in danger.
The number of civilian deaths does not even account for the mood of citizens in either country nor does it account for the additional hatred of the U.S. caused by American presence, particularly military bases and occupation forces, in the Middle East. Our influence in the Middle East created an environment where people in the Arab world felt that the U.S. ignored the interests of the people in order to push American interest.
As a nation, we have been more willing to accept secular despots than the uncertainty of fledgling democracy, which allows the participation of Muslim parties. Much of this policy derived from the Cold War, but we have continued it throughout the 1990s and 2000s; the U.S. was allied with Mubarak in Egypt (and to a lesser extent Gadhafi in Libya) until days before his administration was overthrown by popular protest.
I have significant moral misgivings with the idea of killing real people from the safety and comfort of a desk with a computer screen, but, unless we are willing to end the “War on Terror” altogether, I have fewer moral misgivings with drone strikes than full military intervention, which has more unintended consequences.
Regardless of the philosophical argument over the morality of drone strikes or the legality of killing U.S. citizens, 56 percent of the public supports drone strikes, according to the Pew Research Center. There are surely many reasons for this, but first and foremost is the public’s hesitation at involving our military in another conflict. If the U.S. stops hunting terrorists and attempting to expose plots after pulling out of Iraq and Afghanistan, we will just end up with another failed state that serves as a proving ground for terrorist organizations. Whether this results in another war or not is speculative, but it will present a serious threat to the security of the United States and other western nations.
To quote Union General William T. Sherman, “War is hell.” Drone strikes are a new form of warfare, and war will never be morally righteous. However, when we discuss war in degrees of morality, drone strikes are not nearly as bad as boots-on-the-ground, traditional war. Drones specifically target our enemies with regard for collateral damage, which is very difficult to do when the enemy can shoot back. Drones kill fewer civilians than full deployment of the military.
It is the government’s responsibility to protect U.S. citizens from danger, whether that danger is foreign or domestic. If U.S. citizens are attacking innocent Americans, the government must stop them. With significant safeguards and regard for evidence, the current drone program does its best to protect innocent Americans, reduce civilian deaths and avoid government overreach.
Zac Bears is a Collegian columnist. He can be reached at email@example.com.