EliMcCarthyby Eli McCarthy

NOTE: One can hardly pick up a newspaper today without reading about our government’s ever-expanding use of armed drones, whether by our military over Afghanistan or by the CIA in countries where no war has been declared by the U.S. Our country is leading the way in this “video-game warfare.”  Drones can be easily deployed, are less expensive than sending troops or military jets, and entail no risk of U.S. casualties.  For these reasons, drone warfare is supported by a large majority of Americans.  But drone strikes have killed hundreds of civilians, violate international law, inflame local populations, and serve as a potent recruiting tool for extremists. A lot of good information is available on the Internet on specifics of the U.S. armed drone program, including their legality, morality, and effects.  The following is an insightful article written by Pax Christi Metro DC-Baltimore council member Eli McCarthy.

On May 23, the President laid out an updated drone policy to the Administration’s earlier legal argument in February for the use of armed drones.  The ACLU responded to the February document with legal critiques.  On May 21, the US Conference of Catholic Bishops rightly raised “serious moral concerns” about the drone policy and called us to “consider the longer-term social and political impacts.”  Academics have been offering analysis as well, such as Michael Walzer and Maryann Cusimano Love.  For the most part these analyses consider laws of war, “just” war theory, and civil rights.  However, Cusimano Love’s analysis notably mentions a key limit in that “just” war theory does not tell us how to build peace.

Focusing on the “just” war theory as the key frame of moral analysis for armed drones also fails to adequately engage our imagination for practices of nonviolent peacemaking.  This focus also lowers our capacity to sustain peacemaking practices, and offers little insight into envisioning the just peace which “just” war theory purports to intend.  “Just” war theory also depends on, but doesn’t develop, the “just people” needed to interpret, apply and revise the criteria.

But even more significant, “just” war theory doesn’t prioritize or illuminate a more important moral question about human habits.  I recommend we shift the primary analysis of armed drones from law, “just” war theory and rights to the question, “what kind of people are we becoming by using armed drones?” The following discussion provides an example of where this ethical approach might draw us.


Increasing fear in communities

With drones killing people, we become the kind of people who cultivate fear in communities as they wonder if they may be attacked just because they are in the wrong place at the wrong time.  Drones provoke high anxiety in communities and children become especially afraid.  Parents often fear sending their kids to school or going to the market.  This anxiety and fear is incredibly destructive to trust in communities, and as many have pointed out, drone killing also leads people to turn to other fear-based strategies, including acts we often describe as “terrorism.”

Increasing impersonal engagements of conflict

Armed drones are an impersonal means of engaging conflicts.  By relying on the latest destructive machine to settle conflict and destroy the other, we become increasingly less capable and willing to engage various conflicts in ways that are in accord with our human dignity.  For instance, we become less likely to create conditions to defuse the hostility, such as using development programs, restorative justice practices or nonviolent civilian resistance training.  Furthermore, we also become less likely to speak face-to-face with our opponents, less empathetic for the other, less prone to healing and more apt to ignoring, excluding and de-faming.  The capacity for empathy is a core virtue of human flourishing, one that President Obama has promoted in the past.  But armed drones significantly damage our capacity for empathy in addition to lowering the empathy that others may have for us.

This impersonal way of engaging conflict is also manifested in the video-game mentality of the drone controllers.  Such objectification contributes to the habits in our culture of relating to others primarily as instruments for economic gain, political power, sexual gratification, etc.  One of the direct manifestations of this habit is the development of higher rates of post-traumatic stress syndrome in military drone operators compared to soldiers in combat zones.

Avoiding the roots of conflicts

Using armed drones also lowers our engagement and effectiveness in addressing the roots of conflicts.  Hence, although they may appear to be immediate or short-term resolutions, i.e. “x” leader is killed, we soon end up facing the same conflict re-surfacing in new ways.  Then we wonder why we seem to lurch from hostility to hostility.  We must develop practices and habits that get closer to the roots of conflict to transform them into opportunities for growth and human flourishing.  The President is wise to raise the issue of addressing “underlying grievances,” but when coupled with ongoing armed drone attacks, we will largely obstruct any social gains and create more “grievances.”

In our culture, this habit of avoiding root causes shows up too often in our criminal justice system with its high recidivism rates; school disciplinary systems that too often focuses on exclusion; immigration debate that overemphasizes border security without attention to the drivers of migration; and even friends who too often are unwilling to offer constructive critique to each other.  Using armed drones will likely exacerbate this habit and some cultural problems that arise from it.

Diminishing key virtues

Using armed drones diminishes other key virtues besides empathy.  For instance, the virtue of hope in others, particularly regarding the capacity to change, will falter.  We see this showing up in the ways we too often disconnect, avoid or give up on people who think differently than us in our families, in the criminal justice system and in our political debates.

The virtue of solidarity with all people, especially the poor and marginalized, will become less active.  We damage solidarity not only by increasing fear and cultivating fear-based strategies of violence in poor and marginalized communities, but also by instigating an arms race in drones, which diverts funds away from those in urgent need.

The virtue of courage, which risks one’s life to lift up the dignity of all people, will also be diminished.  This is incredibly damaging to our capacity to imagine, enact and sustain the practices of nonviolent civilian resistance, which has driven our greatest social movements and overthrown dictators across the globe in much more sustainable ways than any violent approach.

The virtue of justice also suffers as we increase our use of armed drones.  A preoccupation with technical legal issues regarding the use of lethal force risks diverting attention from the deeper and more significant form of justice that focuses on the harms done to relationships and how to heal them.  Perpetuating this habit will likely increase other destructive patterns in our culture such as our high recidivism, divorce and suicide rates.

The virtue of nonviolent peacemaking, which realizes the good of conciliatory love that draws enemies toward friendship, is also diminished by continued reliance on armed drones.  To recognize this virtue is not to deny that violence is part of our experience, but to acknowledge that the habit of nonviolent peacemaking is a basic component of human flourishing.  For those professing Christianity, which many of our leaders do, Jesus’ example clarifies that nonviolent peacemaking is a central virtue.

The strategies and tactics we engage become practices, which cultivate the character habits of human persons and societies.  Although the President asserts that his “high threshold” for the “lethal action” of drones respects the “inherent dignity of every human life,”  John Brennan claims that armed drones satisfy the “principle of humanity,” the analysis above indicates some deeper concerns and a fuller vision of “humanity” we should attend to.  The Catholic Compendium of the Social Doctrine quotes Pope John Paul II who said clearly, “that violence is evil, that violence is unacceptable as a solution to problems, that violence is unworthy of (hu)man(s).  Violence is a lie for it goes against the truth of our faith, the truth of our humanity.  Violence destroys what it claims to defend: the dignity, the life, the freedom of human beings” (para. 496).

Whether the reader resonates with all or even some of the above analysis, it should be more clear that the use of armed drones is inconsistent with human dignity and, thus, with the fullness of human rights, and even more important, human flourishing.

Eli S. McCarthy is a professor at Georgetown University and Director of Justice and Peace for the Conference of Major Superiors of Men.  An earlier version of this article was posted on the America “In All Things Blog” on Apr. 2, 2013.

One thought on “DRONES: What are drones doing to us?

  1. Great article, Eli. I will be using this in my CST class next fall.

    Kim Redigan
    Pax Christi Michigan

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