Last month we learned that a US drone strike on suspected Al-Qaida terrorists killed at least 13 people in Yemen who were on their way to a wedding. Many, perhaps all, were innocent.
Let’s talk morality. Too many of our public debates over violence and war are only legal debates, not moral ones. Discussing the second amendment in the gun debate is useful when debating law, but it is beside the moral point. After all, the first amendment legally protects your right to gossip, but doesn’t make it moral. Even though we will disagree on the particulars, let’s acknowledge that many more things are legal than are moral.
And nevermind accusations that the US drone program is illegal. But for now: What makes it immoral?
Yes, on occasion innocent people are being killed by mistake and intelligence is faulty. But it’s more than this. Parts of the Just War tradition reveal specific moral problems with drones as such.
For starters, the means of fighting must discriminate between combatants and noncombatants. Drone advocates laud the precision of drones. We’re a long way from carpet bombing Dresden and nuking Hiroshima, both examples of extraordinary indiscriminateness. This is a moral problem and not just a technical one (of sloppy weapons). Some weapons and some war tactics are designed for the express purpose of including innocent people among their victims. The Catholic Church, for example, categorically condemns nuclear weapons on these grounds. John Kerry recently condemned chemical weapons for their indiscriminateness. (America still has a lot of its own as-yet not-destroyed chemical weapons, not to mention the world’s largest supply of nuclear weapons.)
Nevertheless, the precision of drones is overstated if we only compare them to wildly indiscriminate weapons. We constantly need to ask whether there are more discriminating methods. Why not daggers? Of course you put your own life at much greater risk if you set out to stab your enemy rather than fly an unmanned aircraft from half a world away. But protecting yourself from harm at the cost of increasing the risk of attacking the wrong person carries no moral weight in the Just War tradition. It can even work against you. After the Battle of Hastings (1066), the Norman bishops imposed heavier penance on archers (who kill at a distance) than soldiers who killed at close range.
While clearly preferable to indiscriminate alternatives, focusing only on this aspect of drones can distract us from other moral requirements. One of these is that war must be a last resort. Not only does the Just War tradition insist that a whole war must only be waged as a last resort, but this requirement also carries over into the fighting itself—killing must be the last resort.
Thomas Aquinas (1225–1274) argued this in a discussion of self-defense. He said that if you are being attacked, you must use no more force than is necessary to stop the attack. If you successfully disarm a violent intruder but then go on to stab him to death, you have acted, as Aquinas says, “out of proportion to the end.” Killing the attacker is disproportionate.
This raises two problems with drone strikes on suspected terrorists:
1. No attack is currently underway. President Bush’s doctrine of preventive war (“preemption”) was widely criticized by ethicists for this reason. Obama’s drone policy and his approach to Iran are not much different.
2. Based on last resort: Non-lethal responses have not been exhausted. They have possibly not even been attempted. If the suspected terrorists were in the act of attacking (which, in the drone cases being debated, they aren’t) and it were possible to restrain the attacker short of killing him, the moral response is to do that.
In short, drones are the latest in a long line of technologies that cause our society to relax the moral imperatives of its strongest war-limiting moral tradition. When our souls, and not just our lives, are at stake, daggers don’t sound quite so stupid.
Craig Hovey is Associate Professor of Religion at Ashland University and serves on the Ashland Center for Nonviolence steering committee.