The Common Good
August 2009

Killer Robots

by Gordon S. Clark | August 2009

Attack drones take a heavy civilian toll.

When I reflect on the drone aircraft now being used by the U.S. military to kill suspected “extremists”—and large numbers of innocent bystanders—in Afghanistan and Pakistan, an episode of the original Star Trek comes to mind. In it, Captain Kirk accidently transports into a parallel universe run on fear and violence, where the evil “mirror” Kirk maintains his hold on power with a device that allows him to spy on anyone in the ship and to assassinate them with the press of a button.

Sound familiar?

Drone aircraft are pilotless planes operated by remote control, often from thousands of miles away. In the last two years the drones, which are equipped with both cameras and weapons, have been increasingly used to launch attacks rather than gather intelligence—a fact that has quietly and without significant protest slipped into the narrative of the U.S. war in Afghanistan and Pakistan.

Yet there is every reason to oppose their use and existence. Consider: Even worse than our overall military operations in Afghanistan, which kill significant numbers of civilians, these pilotless drones are by their nature incapable of distinguishing between combatants and civilians. Drones simply launch missiles into buildings or compounds, killing whomever happens to be there. David Kilcullen, a former adviser to Gen. David Petraeus, testified to Congress earlier this year that 14 al Qaeda leaders have been killed in Pakistan by drone attacks since 2006—along with 700 civilians. That’s an astounding ratio of 50 innocent victims killed for each targeted individual!

And, because those targeted are only suspected extremists, drone attacks fundamentally subvert our core legal value of “innocent until proven guilty.” The attacks are, as Catholic anti-war activist Kathy Kelly notes, nothing more than extra-judicial executions, turning mere suspicion into an automatic death sentence.

Moreover, there has never been a declaration to extend the Afghan war to Pakistan, which is where the drones are primarily used. Drone attacks are considered “covert” and are not officially discussed by President Obama or Congress—an absurd artifice that may help suppress domestic criticism, but does nothing to diminish the illegality or immorality of attacking a country with which we are not at war.

Finally, the drone attacks are, by all accounts, solidifying Pakistani public outrage against the U.S. This will inevitably drive more into the ranks of the militants, perpetuating and increasing the violence.

At the end of the Star Trek episode, the good Kirk tries to persuade the evil “mirror” Spock of the wisdom of cooperation over war and violence—yet gives him the assassination device as a way to make that change. President Obama seems to be following the same script. Defense Secretary Robert Gates announced in April that his proposed budget will call for “a major increase in unmanned aircraft,” specifically the Predator drones now being used for attacks. In yet another ominous turn, the Pakistani government is now asking for its own drones.

How is it possible for us to create peace in this shattered region or rebuild our nation’s image and role in the world while increasingly relying on an assassination device that kills more innocents than enemies and makes a mockery of our laws and values? Unlike a TV show that ends in an hour, our actions will have repercussions we will have to live with for years to come.

Gordon S. Clark is the former executive director of Peace Action, the nation’s largest grassroots peace organization.

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