A Philosopher's Blog

Remote Control Assassination

Posted in Ethics, Law, Philosophy, Technology by Michael LaBossiere on January 16, 2012
Armed Predator drone firing Hellfire missile

Image via Wikipedia

Assassination was, obviously enough, not invented by Americans. While we were rather late to the game in this regard (being a young country, we deserve to be cut some slack) we have added our own American touch to the practice. While old school assassinations required that the assassin go in person to do the killing, American assassins can terminate targets across the planet and do so while sitting in a comfy chair. They can do this because we have a variety of Remote Operated Vehicles (ROVs ) or, as they are popularly known, drones. Our standard flying angel of death is the Predator, which was upgraded from a mere surveillance vehicle to a Hellfire missile carrying killing machine.

As might be imagined, the idea that American intelligence services are shooting Hellfire missiles at people (including American citizens) raises various moral and legal questions. Naturally, I will focus on the moral aspect of the matter.

One stock defense of these targeted killings (or, if you prefer, assassinations) is that they are legitimate military operations in a time of war. While this might seem like a rather convenient sort of justification, it is worth considering. After all, if killing in war is morally tolerable, and these attacks are legitimate acts of war, then they could be morally tolerable.

While this oversimplifies things, what morally justifies killing in war tends to be the fact that the actions are conducted within the rules of war and are conducted by legitimate combatants. To use the obvious analogy, if I am boxing someone in a legitimate boxing match, then our beating each other in the face and torso is morally acceptable because we are legitimate combatants operating within the constraints of a rule governed activity. In contrast, if I just start attacking people on the street, then that is quite another matter. It would also be quite another matter if I used a knife in the boxing match or started attacking spectators.

One point of moral concern about the drone attacks conducted by the CIA and other such agencies is that they are not military entities. That is, they would not seem to be legitimate military combatants. This is supported by the intuitive view that when intelligence agents kill people, they are seen as engaged in assassination rather than in combat operations.

An obvious reply is that intelligence agencies could simply be regarded as military entities, although they do not undergo military training, they do not  fall under the military chain of command, and they are not subject to the same sort of moral and legal restrictions as the professional military. However, even if they are considered military entities, there is still the question of whether or not such targeted killings are morally acceptable.

One stock argument for these targeted killings is that they are killing terrorists with lower civilians and military casualties than a more conventional approach would create. After all, shooting a Hellfire missile into a house is far less risky (for Americans) than sending in an American special operations team and less damaging than simply bombing the area.  As such, this tactic can be justified on utilitarianian grounds: drone killings kill more “bad guys” at the cost of less “good guys” and “innocent folks.”  This is a rather appealing line of reasoning, but there are still some concerns.

One concern is that for every intended target killed, drone strikes kill an average of ten civilians. If it is assumed that killing civilians is wrong (which seems reasonable), there is the question of whether or not the killing of the intended targets is worth the deaths of the civilians. To be cynical about it, we do tolerate a certain number of deaths in most aspects of life and regard this as acceptable. For example, tens of thousands of people die in automobile accidents each year, yet we consider driving to be morally acceptable. As another, perhaps more relevant example, we accept civilians casualties as part of war. As such, perhaps this ratio of targets to unintended kills is acceptable under the ethics that governs warfare.

Another concern is that the drone strikes are not aimed at conventional military goals, such as taking a strategic objective or destroying the enemy’s military assets. The objective is to kill (assassinate) a specific person or persons. In some cases these targets have been American citizens, which raises another set of legal and moral concerns. Intuitively, there seems to be an important distinction between, for example, trying to capture a city and trying to kill a specific person.

One obvious counter to this is to cite the example of Operation Vengeance. In WWII, American P-38 fighters  were sent to intercept and kill Japanese Admiral Yamamoto. The Americans succeeded in downing Yamamoto’s “Betty” bomber and his body was subsequently found by the Japanese. This, as might be imagined, had a significant impact on the war in terms of morale and as in terms of the elimination of one of the top Japanese leaders.

However, there are some obvious distinctions between the killing of Yamamoto and drone attacks. In Operation Vengeance, the pilots were Army pilots and they engaged armed enemy aircraft in battle (the Japanese escort fighters and armed bombers were shooting back). That is, the operation was clearly a military operation.

It might be replied that these difference are not relevant and that what matters is that a specific individual was targeted for killing. If it was morally acceptable to kill Yamamoto  by shooting his plane down, then it would seem equally acceptable to blow up a terrorist with a Hellfire missile.

On one hand, this seems like a reasonable reply. After all, the means do not seem as critical as the results when assessing the ethics of the matter. On the other hand, the process does seem to matter. After all, there does seem to be a moral distinction between a combat mission against armed opponents and a drone shooting a Hellfire missile through an alleged terrorist’s window. To use an obvious analogy, the police can morally down a suspect who is shooting at them, but it would not be acceptable for them to put a bomb in a suspect’s car simply because they found it hard to arrest him.

But, some might say, the fact that the target is a terrorist changes things. While the Japanese did attack Pearl Harbor in a sneak attack, that was a military operation and the war was fought as a war. The modern terrorists do not wear uniforms, they do not fly fighter planes with clear markings, they hide among civilians, and they try to avoid directly engaging with enemy forces in battle. As such, they cannot be engaged using the conventional means or rules of war and perhaps this morally justifies the use of targeted drone attacks. It can also be argued that the targeted drone attacks are morally superior to the terrorists’ tactics. After all, the drones are sent to kill  suspected terrorists and the idea is to avoid killing civilians. In contrast, terrorists tend to make no such distinction and their attacks are generally aimed at killing anyone in the area regardless of who they are. Of course, merely being better than a terrorist might not be quite good enough to make the practice morally acceptable.

One final point of concern is one that has been raised by others as well, namely that by engaging in targeted killings we are changing the game by setting a legal and moral precedent. By engaging in the targeted killings of our foes, we present a most eloquent argument for our acceptance of the practice. As such, when Americans become the targets of foreign drones, we will see our robotic chickens come home to roost (and to lay explosive eggs).

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19 Responses

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  1. magus71 said, on January 16, 2012 at 10:29 am

    “One concern is that for every intended target killed, drone strikes kill an average of ten civilians.”

    This link offers no real sources. That ratio is wildly exaggerated in my experience. Also, consider what the article says, because it does not stand the test of common sense or math. It says more than 600 civilians have been killed (as of 2009). So according to the math we’d only killed 60 bad guys with drone strikes at that point. That’s wrong.

    Also, “civilians”, yes. Innocent, no. If you are providing safe haven to a known terrorist in a war, you are not innocent. None of the enemy in these wars are wearing uniforms. The enemy makes a habit of claiming civilian casualties on EVERY drone strike. They know anti-war orgs will come to their defense. Battle damage assessment is difficult in Pakistan, because you need troops to actually go to the site and look at the damage. In Afghanistan, out BDA is pretty good, and I can tell you that if we were killing 10 civilians for every bad guy, many US officers would be fired. This is an outright untruth. Fully to be expected, though, in today’s plague of information and online propaganda.

    I can tell you that the targeting criteria used by the US military is extremely stringent. Lots of work goes in to building “targeting packages”. The information must be form a trustworthy source, and timely. It is usually the result of weeks or months of work, just for one person. In the old days, the troops moved in to town and shot or arrested anyone that looked dangerous. Now we our over every engagement from our mom’s basement. And we still rarely get it right.

    • Michael LaBossiere said, on January 16, 2012 at 8:35 pm

      The military use of drones is different from the intelligence services use of drones. One rather serious moral and legal concern about the Obama administration is the use of drones in targeted killings by these non-military agencies. The military, which has strict rules of engagement and a clear code of professional ethics tends to be rather good at minimizing civilian deaths. That is, after all, one of the main reasons for the rules of war and why it is good to have a professional military rather than thugs.

      • magus71 said, on January 17, 2012 at 11:07 pm

        The President has more direct control over the CIA than the military.

  2. magus71 said, on January 16, 2012 at 10:49 am

    Also, most civilian casualty numbers of drone strikes in Pakistan are gleaned from one of the most unreliable sources in the world: Pakistani media reports. A good deal of Pakistani journalists are actually on the ISI payroll. Every journalist who enters Pakistan should expect to be followed, their phones tapped, and threats received.

    As we can see, their propaganda and disinformation is quite successful.

  3. FRE said, on January 16, 2012 at 4:36 pm

    There is one aspect to the problem of killing civilians that is rarely covered.

    Often who is chosen to be a soldier is arbitrary. A man may be a civilian merely because he has some minor disability and despite his desire to enlist, he was rejected. In that case, is it less morally acceptable for him to be killed than for a soldier to be killed?

    Suppose that a mother has raised her sons to be soldiers and has instilled into them a hatred of people of a different religion or nationality. In that case, would it be less morally acceptable for her to be killed than for one of her soldier sons to be killed?

    Civilians are often as important to a war effort as are soldiers. For example, arms manufacturers hire civilians. It it less acceptable for these civilians to be killed than for soldiers to be killed?

    What about politicians who have supported a war? Is it less acceptable for them to be killed?

    I don’t have all the answers, but I do have questions which should be addressed.

    • Michael LaBossiere said, on January 16, 2012 at 8:36 pm

      I would say that the politicians who start a war would be the most justifiable targets of all. I’ll need to expand on that, of course.

      • FRE said, on January 16, 2012 at 9:51 pm

        It would be difficult to disagree with that, even though technically the politicians who start wars are often civilians.

      • Anonymous said, on January 16, 2012 at 11:19 pm

        In a democracy all the people would hold some responsibility. And some wars are justified.


        • FRE said, on January 17, 2012 at 2:08 am

          Some wars are justified? Wouldn’t it be more accurate to say that one side of the war may be justified?

          • magus71 said, on January 17, 2012 at 10:12 am

            “Every nation mocks the others, and all of them are right.” ~Arthur Schopenhauer

  4. Nick said, on January 16, 2012 at 8:08 pm

    Magnus: just curious. You called Michael out on citing an article that lacked sources, but in your comment, you spoke from “experience” and made lots of non-cited claims (about journalists, death ratios, BDA, etc.). These are interesting claims. Could you point me to the sources for this info?

    • magus71 said, on January 17, 2012 at 10:14 am

      I’m an intelligence analyst who worked on strategic level intelligence at Bagram Airfield, Afghanistan, in the Joint Operations Compound, July 2010-July 2011.

      • anon said, on January 17, 2012 at 11:36 am

        So a biased source using anecdotal evidence 😉

        • magus71 said, on January 17, 2012 at 6:11 pm

          Actually we used the opposite of anecdotal evidence. weekly, my office produced matrices documenting all civilian, enemy and coalition force deaths throughout the area of operation.

          Perhaps you have better info than I do?

      • Nick said, on January 17, 2012 at 10:22 pm

        Ok. Thanks. So is this public info? I would love to be able to look at this kind of stuff from time to time.

        • magus71 said, on January 17, 2012 at 11:05 pm

          As I said, most of the public reports for civilian deaths in Pakistan come from Pakistani news paper reports. Those are public. They are considered highly dubious sources, however. I’ve personally heard General (at the time) Petraeus get angry when civilian casualties were reported to him. If 10 civilians were killed for every terrorist, Patraeus would have ordered the strikes stopped in Afghanistan. During the last 4 months of my tour I daily sat in on briefings to Petraeus and and cannot remember a drone strike reported that killed 10 times as many civilians as enemy fighters. I’m not saying they didn’t happen, but if it were a pattern I would have noticed since it was my job to notice patterns.

          Most of the civilian casualties I remember were from Apache gunship attacks near the Pakistani border.

  5. […] Go read this post about use of drones in warfare… […]

  6. WTP said, on July 31, 2012 at 9:28 pm

    Looking for some evidence of your favoring of a strong military. Not finding much but ran across this of other note:

    “While the Japanese did attack Pearl Harbor in a sneak attack, that was a military operation and the war was fought as a war. The modern terrorists do not wear uniforms, they do not fly fighter planes with clear markings, they hide among civilians, and they try to avoid directly engaging with enemy forces in battle”

    The Japanese hid among civilians, tortured, murdered, and enslaved (and even cannibalized) prisoners, tortured, murdered and enslaved civilian populations, used dumdum bullets, suicide attacks, and other gross violations of rules of war to the point that in many ways one could question their standing as a professional military organization.

    • Michael LaBossiere said, on August 1, 2012 at 10:23 am

      The truth of your claims is consistent with the truth of my claims-mainly because the claims are true.

      How about this for evidence I am for a strong military: I am for a strong military.

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