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Voices / Column

Drone dilemma

No wonder kids in places like Yemen are afraid to go to school and people think twice before attending weddings and funerals

Elayne Clift writes about women, health, politics, and social issues.

Saxtons River

I had to see the controversial film Zero Dark Thirty for myself to decide if, as charged, it advanced the case for “enhanced interrogation methods” — military-speak for torture.

It did not, in my view.

What it did was affirm the hideous and inhumane nature of torture, no matter where it is carried out and by whom. It should never be used by any country that positions itself as a moral leader.

Now, I need to see the documentary Dirty Wars: The World Is a Battlefield. It is likely to confirm my growing antipathy toward the ever-increasing use of drones, especially following the recently leaked memo that has alarmed so many in public and private quarters.

Reading “Bug Splats,” a piece by George Monbiot in The Guardian in December, made me think about drones. Why, Mr. Monbiot wondered in the essay, written shortly after the Newtown massacre, were the murders of children by a deranged man in Connecticut any more worthy of the world’s grief than the children killed in countries like Pakistan as a matter of American policy?

If the victims of drone strikes are mentioned at all, he wrote, “they are discussed in terms which suggest they are less than human.”

An article in Rolling Stone, he said, alleged that “people who operate drones describe their casualties as ‘bug splats’ since seeing bodies through a green video image gives them the sense of an insect being crushed.”

This is harsh and emotional stuff. So I went in search of fact and further opinion.

* * *

Facts were hard to come by since much of what happens with drones is classified. But here are some things I learned.

• The Pentagon has about 7,000 drones. A decade ago, it had 50 of them.

• In the 2012 budget, the Obama administration asked Congress for almost $5 billion for more drones, now seen as crucial for fighting terrorism.

• A reported 1,900 insurgents in Pakistan’s tribal regions have been killed by American drones since 2006, and in 2011, a drone in Yemen killed Anwar al-Awlaki (an American and Yemeni imam alleged to have connections to al Qaida).

Here’s the problem: the United States is not at war with Pakistan or Yemen, and that makes their use in these countries officially illegal. For the first time in history a civilian intelligence agency is using robots to carry out military missions — killing people — in countries where the U.S. is not officially at war.

Proponents of drone use argue that so long as their use is grounded in sound intelligence information, the drones enable the U.S. to attack terrorists with a fair degree of precision without risking American lives. Mistakes happen in war, they say, but not as much “collateral damage” — killing of innocents — occurs as would if bombs or troops were being used.

If we didn’t use drones, they argue, what action could the U.S. take to stop al-Qaida and other terrorist organizations?

But concerns are beginning to surface as drones become more ubiquitous and more deadly. A United Nations panel led by Ben Emmerson, special investigator for the UN Human Rights Council, has begun to look at “drone strikes and other forms of remotely targeted killing.”

Of particular concern are 25 selected drone strikes that have been conducted in recent years in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Yemen, Somalia, and the Palestinian territories. Noting that it is not only the U.S. coming under scrutiny — 50 other states have the technology to develop “active drone arsenals” — Emmerson says “it is completely unacceptable to allow the world to drift blindly toward the precipice without any agreement between states as to the circumstances in which drone-strike targeted killings are lawful, and on the safeguards necessary to protect civilians.”

Such safeguards will not come soon enough for the 64 children killed during the first three years of Barack Obama’s administration. (Drone attacks began during the George W. Bush administration. One of them killed 69 children.)

During those three years, a report by the Stanford and New York University law schools suggests, there were 259 drone strikes. They killed an estimated 569 civilians. Some say that is a conservative estimate.

* * *

It is worrying, then, that President Obama’s choice to head the CIA is John O. Brennan, deputy national security advisor, a man who calls drone targets “cancerous tumors.” No wonder kids in places like Yemen are afraid to go to school and people think twice before attending weddings or funerals that might be mistaken for a gang of plotters.

Writing in The Guardian in January, Simon Jenkins sounded this alarm: “The greatest threat to world peace [] is from drones and their certain proliferation. [...] Drones are now sweeping the global arms market [with] some 10,000 said to be in service.”

Some reports, he said, say that “they have killed more non-combatant civilians than died in 9-11.”

The threat of serious backlash looms. A Yemeni writer told The New York Times that al-Qaida recruiters “wave pictures of drone-butchered women and children.” National membership of al-Qaida in Yemen is now three times larger than it was in 2009.

If that doesn’t worry you, consider this.

Last February, President Obama signed a law compelling the FAA to allow drone use for commercial endeavors in this country. These uses range from selling real estate to dusting crops and monitoring wildlife. Hollywood may even use drones to film, and local police will be freer to deploy flying robots.

While drone manufacturers drool, safety concerns increase.

I understand that drones, used with an abundance of caution for selective anti-terrorism operations, backed by stringent legislation, might be a necessary part of our arsenal.

But I can’t get the picture of those innocent children out of my mind. And no one should have to fear going to school, attending a wedding, or mourning at a funeral, especially when the one being buried is a child.

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Originally published in The Commons issue #194 (Wednesday, March 13, 2013).

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