Drone Debate Reveals Moral Hypocrisy of Both Sides


At the end of The Godfather Part IIMichael Corleone famously remarked, “If anything in life is certain, if history has taught us anything, it’s that you can kill anybody.” America’s current drone policy has made the fictitious mobster look like a prophet. The Bush administration began using the nimble humanless aircrafts, authorizing about 50 non-battlefield drone strikes. This paved the way for what we’re now witnessing. Of course, the Obama administration has taken this to a whole new bloody level. The President has authorized five times as many drone strikes leaving nearly 4,000 dead.

Ethicists and public policy experts have decried the many problems of such a policy. For example, a drone is a weapon of war often used in countries that America is not at war with. In Yemen alone, our government has authorized 50 drone strikes since 2009. These have resulted in the death of approximately 400 people, including 80 civilians. Last time I checked, America is not at war with Yemen. Yet we continue to wage war within the borders of that sovereign nation (as well as Pakistan, Somalia, and others).

As Christian ethicist David Gushee points out, this illustrates both American arrogance and the double standards under which we often operate:

The United States would never accept it if another militarily sophisticated country-China or Russia come to mind-developed a policy in which they routinely launched “targeted” attacks on our soil seeking the deaths of those they identified as “imminent threats” to their national security, accidentally killing innocent Americans on a regular basis.

Hard to disagree with that.

These sorts of attacks damage American relations with other nations and serve to intensify anti-American sentiments abroad. In other words, we continue to create the problems we’re asking our military forces to “deal with.”

Justification for the policy is that they are better than the alternatives. As some have argued, “they’re the worst form of war, except for all others. Such assertions are at least partially true. But drone strikes create many unique problems that traditional warfare does not.

For example, NYU student Josh Begley has been tweeting every reported U.S. drone strike since 2002. His feed highlights a disturbing tactic used by Americans that is widely considered a war crime. The tactic is called the "double tap," and it involves bombing a target multiple times in quick succession. Subsequent strikes often kill medical personnel and other first responders.

Worse still, the Obama Administration has now authorized the use of drones to kill American citizens abroad so long as an “informed, high-level official” determines that the citizen presents an “imminent threat of violent attack against the United States.”  The criteria is maddeningly vague, and according to the administration, it is not subject to external review. The Fifth Amendment of the Constitution states that “No person shall be . . . deprived of life . . . without due process of law.” Yet this administration has decided it should act as judge, jury, and executioner without any checks or balances to guard against executive branch abuses.

Some argue that the so-called “war on terror” is a unique kind of war and requires new rules. America needs to protect its national security at whatever cost, they say. This reasoning is a security blanket for those who fear they may not be otherwise safe but it is problematic, particularly for Christians. As Gushee comments:

The Christian moral tradition treats war as at best a last resort and requires threshold tests before accepting the tragic moral necessity of occasional resort to war. There is reason to be concerned that our self-perception of being in an endless war on terror has broken the “last resort” trigger mechanism. If we are in a permanent state of war than we no longer need to justify the use of force in any particular venue. We have a permanent pass on all the war-threshold tests and can fire away at anyone who poses an “imminent threat of violent attacks against the United States,” even low-level functionaries in the Yemeni desert. 

A drone is a weapon of war being used in countries that America is not at war with. To claim that we are in a unique war situation with modern terrorism fails to address the moral inconsistencies of our actions or present us with a sustainable framework for moving forward. Instead, it allows our government to continue waging a shadow war with numbers of casualties that are kept secret.

This is, of course, a complex issue and will not be solved now in this forum. We need a serious debate about the moral implications of American policy and whether or not it lives up to the values and ideals we claim to cherish. So why aren’t we having such a public discussion right now? The answer, it seems, is partisanship.

Liberals decried the “Bush doctrine” for being heavy-handed in national defense. They protested the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. They objected to waterboarding and rendition, claiming that America shouldn’t stoop to such lows, even in the interest of national security.  But the anti-war movement that rattled White House windows during the latter years of the Bush administration basically disappeared when Obama was elected. The war didn’t, but the protest did.

"I’m amazed that so few Americans — most notably, so few liberals — have protested his secretive remote-control assassination program,” writes Dick Polman in the Miami Herald.

When it comes to the Obama administration's drone strike policy, many liberals have kept their mouths shut. Apparently, killing is different when a Democrat is pulling the trigger.

On the other side of the aisle, conservatives—and particularly conservative Christians—are suddenly outraged. My twitter feed has been dotted with cutting remarks from Christian pastors, leaders, and armchair politicos venting their frustrations at Obama’s drone policy. Few seem to remember that President Bush began the program with barely a Christian murmur. So while these conservatives were chaplains of the status quo for two unbroken terms, they are now apparently incensed.

The drone debate, insofar as it is actually happening, highlights the moral hypocrisy of both sides. This issue and many like it will not be resolved until we first find a solution to the blind partisanship that saturates our halls of power. Such a state of affairs is frustrating under any circumstance, but it is exceptionally loathsome when others are dying as a result.

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