Scott Shane: Objective Troy (PhÜD)

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Scott Shane: Objective Troy : a terrorist, a president, and the rise of the drone

Review: Thomas Nagel: Really Good at Killing

Pacifists are rare. Most people believe that lethal violence may be used in self-defence, or the defence of others, against potentially lethal threats. Military action is justified by a collective institutional version of this basic human right, which sets an outer limit on the right to life. Lethal aggressors who cannot be stopped by lesser means are liable to lethal attack, and this does not violate their right to life so long as they remain a threat. Killing in self-defence is distinct from execution, the killing of someone who is no longer a threat as a punishment for past conduct. It is also usually distinct from assassination, which can be carried out for a wide range of reasons: revenge, political or religious hatred, nationalistic passion and so forth – though occasionally someone who is a lethal threat to the assassin or his community may be targeted.
The development of drone warfare has put these distinctions under strain, and that helps to explain the visceral reaction many people have against it, in spite of its being much less destructive than more traditional forms of military violence. Drones, or UAVs (unmanned aerial vehicles), are more selective in the killing of enemies, produce less collateral damage to non-combatants and impose no physical risk to those who pilot them, since they are sitting in a control station thousands of miles away. Who could ask for more?
The legitimacy of drone warfare has been persistently contested, by Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch among others, on multiple grounds:
  1. that those targeted may not be combatants under the laws of war;
  2. that the intelligence used to identify and locate targets is often unreliable;
  3. that the concept of an ‘imminent threat’ used as the basis for lethal action has been grossly distorted, beyond the bounds of legitimate self-defence;
  4. that there is unacceptable collateral damage to civilians, without acknowledgment or any attempt at compensation;
  5. that the targeting of individuals outside a war zone amounts to extrajudicial execution;
  6. that the alternative of capture and trial is systematically disregarded;
  7. that the remoteness and safety of the drone operators fosters a lighthearted attitude to killing.
The Justice Department’s main claim was that the killing of a leading member of al-Qaida who is engaged in plotting and carrying out attacks against the United States is justified as an act of national self-defence under the laws of war even if the target is not operating from an active war zone, and that his American citizenship does not immunise him from attack. Since the campaign against al-Qaida is not a conflict with the uniformed armed forces of a belligerent state, the US has to rely on intelligence of various kinds, both to identify individuals as active terrorists and to locate them. But that is the inevitable character of combat against a small, mobile organisation whose warriors are not organised into an army, and whose cells may be located anywhere. (As an alternative to the laws of war justification, the US was also prepared to use the analogy of police action against a lethal threat. If a sniper is shooting people from a protected vantage point that prevents him from being captured, it is permissible to kill him to stop him killing more people.)
The president as killer is a chilling new face of the role of commander-in-chief. I suspect that it is the personal, individualised nature of drone warfare that many people find so repellent. It is easier to be resigned to the slaughter of faceless multitudes by conventional missiles, bombs and artillery, with the inevitable attendant collateral damage, in pursuit of legitimate military objectives. War is hell, as we all know. But when the president puts someone on a kill list to be taken out by a precise drone strike, it creates the illusory sense of a more direct responsibility for that death than for the other kind. It feels like an execution, though it is just retail warfare, and the responsibility, individual and collective, is equally great in both cases.
Does it make a moral difference that this kind of killing exposes the killers to no physical risk? Is it a condition on the acceptability of warfare that those who kill should put their lives on the line? That has an emotional plausibility, but it comes from an image of the warrior that applies only selectively. Those who launch missiles or drop bombs are of course legitimate military targets, but often the capacities of the belligerent parties are so asymmetrical that the more powerful of them are in practical terms exempt from risk.