Killer Robots

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.

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Sojourners Magazine August 2009
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