Bugsplat is software used to calculate and reduce the death of innocent people in drone strikes. It's also how Predator drone operators talk about the people whom the American military kills in these missions. The Bureau of Investigative Journalism estimates that the U.S. is responsible for 2,500 deaths in Pakistan, Yemen, Somalia since 2001, including dozens of children. This figure doesn¹t even count Iraq and Afghanistan. But we don't know for sure how many innocents die because most Americans, including too many of our political and military leaders, do not even know when drone strikes happen, whom exactly they target and why, and whether they are successful in achieving their objectives.
Drone attacks require the president's review and approval. And it is the military's responsibility to execute plans so that no innocent lives are lost. But our democracy is a work in progress, and it will only function well if American citizens stay involved. Given President Obama's request last fall for Congress to approve strikes in Syria, we should call on elected officials to fully debate the 2001 Authorization for Use of Military Force — which has often served as a blanket legal justification for drone strikes, going far beyond its original purpose to take action against those responsible for the September 11 attacks. Repealing the act will help reinstate the checks and balances that are hallmarks of democracy. Our leaders must be more transparent.
Bugsplat. In aerial view, human beings can look like tiny insects. Drone strikes purport to spare American soldiers the risk of death or even the trauma of survival in face-to-face combat, but drone operators have to spend hours and sometimes weeks monitoring the individuals they target. They must analyze the damage close-up after each attack. And, like Chris Kyle in American Sniper and generations of bomber pilots, they do suffer post-traumatic stress disorder, anxiety, and other mental health disorders. As Americans, we must do more to make sure their voices are fully heard and to take these costs into account when making decisions about whether to continue drone warfare and its scope.
At the first Interfaith Conference on Drone Warfare in January, organized by the Peace Action Education Fund and attended by more than 150 religious leaders and activists, Professor George Hunsinger of Princeton Theological Seminary spoke about the double-edged sword of our collective loyalty to America. Noting that drones "replace due process with assassination and undermine the rule of law," he reminded us that nationalism should not lead us to ignore our own flaws, nor to devalue and humiliate others. As Americans of faith — as well as some of no specific faith — we have clear ethics that call us to higher ground, even in warfare. Rapid technological advancement and the worldwide spread of drones should be subject to a morality that values life and humanity. Dr. Hunsinger called on our nation to seek international treaties that will ban the sale and use of semi-autonomous and autonomous weapons and abandon kill list programs.
Long term, it is not clear whether lethal drones will truly help build a peaceful world or only contribute to unending cycles of violence. To state the obvious, human history gives us plenty of lessons that killing people only leads to more killing. Time and time again we hear violent extremist leaders and their foot soldiers cite U.S. drone strikes as the motivation for their actions — and over and over, American leaders use those threats to justify the expansion of the drone program. Americans have an important choice to make. We can allow this violence to spiral and grow, or we can stand by our morals and push for policies and programs that affirm human dignity and build peace.
Humans are not a bugsplat.
In an artistic response to American drone strikes in Khyber Pukhtoonkhwa, a Pakistani, American, and French collaborative project installed a massive portrait of an innocent girl's face turned up toward the skies. It is meant to be visible to drone cameras, to humanize victims, and to create greater empathy and introspection. People around the world are struggling to hold on to their faith that Americans will rise to the challenge of greater compassion and justice. We must not let them down. Drones may be here to stay, but our current program of lethal drone warfare doesn¹t have to.
Sarah Sayeed, Ph.D. is the Director of Community Partnerships at the Interfaith Center of New York and a board member of Women In Islam, Inc., a Muslim women's human rights organization. She is a participant of the U.S. Pakistan Interreligious Consortium, led by Intersections International.