Blame the worker, not the tool

Yesterday the Daily Show featured an interview with Missy Cummings, a former Air Force pilot and current MIT Professor, who wants people to freak out less about drones. It’s well worth watching—a good interview with a person who clearly knows what she’s talking about—but what she leaves out is rather problematic.

I very much agree with Cummings when she’s talking specifically about the technology: she’s right that drones are just a continuum from the direction military technology’s been moving in for a long time, and she’s right that surveillance drones are much less interesting or worrying than things like wiretapping and its equivalents. But the three big things that really worry me about the drone wars aren’t specific to drones at all:

The less the US has to commit, spend or risk in order to do some killing, the more willing it is to kill. The trouble is, the threshold for who is worth “getting” drops – think Anwar Al-Awlaki’s son. I’m pretty sure they’d have gone after the father with marines on the ground if they hadn’t had drones to kill him with, but I doubt they’d have bothered with the son.

In order to risk its troops less, the US has long been willing to shift risk onto bystanders in combat zones. It’s not just the collateral damage from recent drone strikes – the one thing I still hold against Bill Clinton from his Presidency was that when the US intervened in the former Yugoslavia it caused many avoidable civilian deaths, because Clinton refused to let the air force fly lower than about 3 miles. I thought at the time that in order to minimise the risk to volunteer troops and expensive hardware, he was willing to very much increase the risk of civilian collateral damage, and switching from human missions to drones is just the next step in that process.

And then the really big one is oversight. The United States is fighting undeclared wars in [at least] Yemen, Pakistan and Somalia, with no congressional oversight, and apparently no oversight over the President just getting to say “kill X, spare Y” like Caesar. The fact that they’re being fought with drones isn’t directly the problem–if anything doing this with human troops on the ground would be even worse–but the drone issue is that I don’t believe Obama would be doing this if drones weren’t such an “easy” option.

It’s easy to forget that a hammer is neither good nor evil, but the same hammer can be used to build a house or smash a skull.

Thank you Kevin for making me watch the interview by asking me what I thought of it.

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