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Posted by on Feb 19, 2013 in At TMV, International, Law, Media, Places, Politics, Science & Technology, Society, War | 24 comments

Droning on About Drones

Drones, both the military kind and the “civilian” kind, have been a lot in the news lately, so much that one could say — as one of our readers lamented — that we are droning about drones.

I have droned myself about this controversial subject, here and here, including droning about a new medal to be awarded to the pilots of these drones — all with innumerable, droning “Updates.”

But all droning aside, it is a subject that interests and worries many and consumes some.

On the military, or anti-terrorists side, the concerns are of a legal, moral and ethical nature, including what many feel is the non-judicial, indiscriminate killings of these bad actors, the tragic accidental killings of innocents — the so-called “collateral damage” — and the always present “slippery slope.”

Talking about the “slippery slope,” such military use now appears to be slipping away into civilian or commercial applications, where the concerns are mainly related to privacy issues, the “Big Brother” scenario — George Orwell’s “1984,” Aldous Huxley’s “Brave New World” and other “dystopian” (I had to look this one up) nightmares.

Talking about dystopian nightmares — forgive the drone-like repetition — the New York Times has a fascinating “Op-Doc” today about, you guessed it, “Drones for America!

By the way, “Op-Docs” are “short, opinionated documentaries, produced with creative latitude by independent filmmakers and artists,” published periodically at the Times. (To learn more about these interesting Op-Docs and to perhaps submit one yourself, please click here).

But back to “Drones for America!”

There is no doubt as to where the author of this Op-Doc, Drew Christie, stands on the issue of drones, both for military and civilian-commercial purposes.

On their military use, and answering the rhetorical, “How will flying drones affect the psychology of those living under them?” Christie says:

For clues we can look to Pakistan, where the United States has killed thousands in drone strikes. Some Pakistani children reportedly have trouble studying and have dropped out of school because of the fear of drones buzzing overhead; some adults are afraid to gather publicly or attend weddings and funerals.

Reflecting on “domestic drones,” which, the author suspects, “will eventually have a similar effect: allowing the state to dominate the public through pervasive eyes in the sky,” he ponders:

How will these machines be regulated? Will they be weaponized? Will the National Rifle Association insist on the right of every American to have a drone to protect his or her family and home? None of this has been decided yet, but American lawmakers are pushing for drones to be in the skies over your head very soon. (Members of the Congressional Unmanned Systems Caucus — also known as the drone caucus — in the House of Representatives have received $8 million in contributions over the last four years from drone manufacturers.) How will flying drones affect the psychology of those living under them?

When Christie was developing his animated Op-Doc, he had in mind the adoption of drones by the Seattle Police Department — a program now abandoned — and, in addition to the two previously mentioned dystopian novels, Yevgeny Zamyatin’s 1924 novel “We.”

I highly recommend that you watch Christies’ delightful yet frightening animated satire where a former K.G.B. agent gleefully “welcomes a future in which Americans live under the watchful eyes of drones.”

Drew Christie is an animator, filmmaker and illustrator who lives in Seattle. His previous Op-Docs are “Hi! I’m a Nutria,” “Allergy to Originality” and “A Thanksgiving Eel.”


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  • “Do the United States and its people really want to tell those of us who live in the rest of the world that our lives are not of the same value as yours?”

    Archbishop Desmond Tutu, commenting on US drone policy in a letter to the New York Times.

    Archbishop Desmond Tutu has long been known for speaking out on behalf of those whose voice is under-represented. Now that group has expanded to include those dehumanized and objectified into the category of “collateral damage.” Thank you Archbishop Tutu. Sometimes it takes more courage to speak for the impoverished innocents who die without the power or resources to decide, evade or escape their fate than it does to pull the trigger…or operate the joystick.

    Just my .02

  • dduck

    I’d be happy to have that conversation, think we should discuss the situation and we need several commissions to study the overseas drones that attack people of color or religion, and another commission on the use of drones in the 50 states.

    When all else fails, we could restrict the electronic control of these (FCC?) with strict universal registration and electronic monitoring (Little brother). We set up missile defenses in the past so this should be easy, or not, if the ACLU jumps in and it goes to the SCOTUS based on drones are people argument.

    Meantime, a International Court ruling that it is not nice to assassinate folks, intentionally or as innocents, is unlawful. I’m sure at this point, a paucity of good targets, and switching the newer drones hopping off the assembly line, for advertising. That buzz or hum certainly gets peoples attention and it is cheaper than TV since ad skipping is becoming more common. And it is not a drone anymore, but a Airborne Communication Device.
    Step aside Goodyear Blimp, you are outdated, try Venezuela.

  • A point of information that has not been covered here at TMV, notwithstanding all the droning on about the subject of drones:

    The USA is currently the subject of a United Nations investigation to determine whether our drone policy contravenes international law. Unlike bombing Germany during WWII, we are not war with nations like Pakistan, Somalia and Yemen. As such, our incursions into their territory to engage in acts of warfare that kill their civilian nationals may be deemed to constitute a violation of sovereignty, contrary to international law.

    The UN report is not expected to be completed until autumn. Part of the reason for the delay is US secrecy and refusal to release specific information on who has been killed, who is considered a terrorist, and what the number of innocents who have been killed is.

    Estimates of actual “high value” terrorists who have been killed range as low as 2% of the 3000 or so who have died. The source is admittedly biased, and it can be no more than a guess because of US secrecy about who the targets have been. Official US reports have at various times declared that the number of inoocents who have died are “single digits”, i.e. less that 10, during the entire Obama adminsitration to 30 in one finite time span. Obviously both cannot be true. Combining such contradictory assertions with the secrecy, there is a reason many in the international community are suspicious of US claims about its drone policy.

    Estimates that appear to be more reliable put the number of children killed to date at between 172 and somewhere above 200. That number obviously does not include innocent non-combatant men and women.

    • DORIAN DE WIND, Military Affairs Columnist

      ES and dd, thanks for your comments

  • ordinarysparrow

    The more i learn about drones the greater my opposition… I have drawn the line in the sand that has no opening for drone technology…If ever there is a time for us to have a ‘no’ this is one… We need to pull back and close the door on drones, not so much what they can do now, but because of what and who is promoting them and the likelihood of a de-evolving endgame…

    Dorain would like to add these perspectives to the drone on drones…which i find to be a most important topic that we cannot afford to numb us down.

    National Catholic Reporter and Moral questions of Drones

    Drone Victims and their Stories:

    Obeying a Higher Law: Obeying a Higher Law: Making the Case Against Drone Warfare
    This website is associated with Rabbi Michael Lerner, a well respected human rights activist…

  • DORIAN DE WIND, Military Affairs Columnist

    Thanks, Ordinarysparrow.

  • brcarthey

    This is one of many cases where I am in moral and ethical limbo with regards to the use of drones. I perfectly understand the “why’s” (minimal US casualties, attacking those first before they attack us, cheaper operation, etc.) of their use. On those bases, I can’t say that I oppose drones for those purposes. I don’t mind that my government is attacking an organization (without borders) who’s hell-bent on the destruction of my country and fellow citizens. Though I could understand (in a way) their anger over an infidel nation’s army on holy soil, they lost that understanding when they began a series of attacks on innocent civilians and soldiers/sailors that culminated in the WTC attacks on 9/11. How does a country legally go after a nationless army whose main goal is the destruction of said country? As I read up on these human rights advocates’ outrage, I wonder what in the blessed name of “Kum-ba-yah” they are thinking is going to happen if we stop going after these terrorists. This is going to be a never-ending threat. Therefore, it is our duty to keep fighting them. However, if we can do it smartly and with minimal US casualties, it seems like a no-brainer. I want this perversion of Islam eradicated as much as possible because of the guilt-by-association it brings to my friends who are Muslim from the ignorant and because of the tyranny they impose on the citizens around them. The way I see it, Al-Qaeda is an organization run by cowardly and ignorant men who are not happy with the changes in society that challenge their dominating, patriarchal roles within it. So, they fight among innocent civilians hoping we won’t retaliate and hide behind the “hijab” of fanatical Islam even most of the sensible world sees right through this sham.

    I understood why Al-Qaeda was originally angry with the US when we, as infidels, established military bases in the Muslim holy land. If the script were reverse and the Arab League established bases in Israel or other Christian holy sites you can bet that Pat Robertson and company would be having ruptured aneurysms left and right. Yes, I am quite aware that the US was “invited” to establish the bases in the Kingdom of Saud by the royal family for protection against Iraq. However, Iraq is no longer a threat and while Iran is a looming one, it’s not solidified. Plus, we have a base in Yemen, NATO bases in Turkey and Italy, and will maintain a military presence in Afghanistan for the foreseeable future. So, why do we continue to inflame devout Muslims and give these religious charlatans an excuse to rally support against us? If we left the Arabian peninsula, Al-Qaeda’s stated original purpose becomes moot (and we save some tax dollars). We’ve sold enough planes and other military hardware for that country to amply defend itself.

    On the other hand, I am also very opposed to the high number of collateral damage estimates in the civilian populations. The killing of Abdulrahman al-Awlaki, the teenage son of Anwar al-Awlaki, in Yemen in 2011 was certainly out-of-bounds and, I will grudgingly admit, had the Bush Administration carried out an attack like that, liberals would’ve hyperventilated with outrage. That’s not to say they’re not upset, just that the anger seems muted because “their guy” did it. The only anger you get from conservatives is at liberals for appearing hypocritical. However, the killing of Al-Awlaki is murky for me. Yes, as an American citizen, he was denied due process, but as a sworn enemy combatant engaged in warfare against the country of his citizenship that makes him a traitor. During times of war in the field of battle if a traitor is engaged by our troops we stop to give him “due process.” I understand this isn’t a war in the conventional sense based on past wars. Nevertheless, we are at war with an enemy and Mr. Al-Awlaki chose to take up arms against us. I wish he could have been captured and brought to trial, then, assuming a guilty verdict, be tucked away in a quaint little building in the middle of the Colorado wilderness. I’m just not sure he would have been taken alive if that were even possible given his location at the time of his death.

    The greater murkiness in this moral dilemma is that were causing these casualties in other sovereign nations. This is also very problematic. When Osama’s crew attacked us, the Taliban government supported him and denied our request to hand him over. In turn, we declared pseudo-war on Afghanistan and invaded it. Pakistan is supposed to be one of our allies, but its government does not seem to have the power to stop Al-Qaeda as it operates with impunity within its borders. Because of the civilian casualties, Pakistan has asked us to stop the drone attacks inside its borders. We’ve ignored this request which is very wrong and hypocritical of the US to continue. We certainly don’t allow any other countries to make drone attacks within our borders of their enemies, even our staunchest allies. Imagine the public’s collective stroke it would be having if China started picking off political dissidents that we’ve given asylum to. So, on that basis alone, we should stop these attacks, which would give Al-Qaeda a chance to rebuild. What to do, what to do?

    As I ranted and blathered on and on (during a study break from med school) I’ve come to imagine that Al-Qaeda is like the bacteria Staphylococcus aureus. Staph is part of our normal bacterial flora and does provide some benefits much like Al-Qaeda did in the 80s against the Soviets. However, over the years both Staph aureus and Al-Qaeda mutated becoming very dangerous. At first, we were able to contain them, but not completely eradicate them. Guess what happens when you don’t completely finish your antibiotics or over-prescribe them, Staph aureus can mutate, multiply and become a more dangerous strain, MRSA (methycilin-resistant Staph aureus. Now, those old drugs that used to work no longer work against the mutated strains so we use much more powerful drugs like Vancomycin. Now, we’re seeing new strains of Staph aureus resistant to that drug. Likewise, old warfare and weapons didn’t finish off Al-Qaeda; they mutated and now we have to use different and more powerful weapons. However, I doubt we’ll completely finish them off. Al-Qaeda will mutate again and again we’ll have to come up with new “treatment” strategies for them. God help us if either mutate into something as unstoppable as something akin to the Borg.

    Sorry if I lost you or you became bored by the end.

    • DORIAN DE WIND, Military Affairs Columnist

      “Sorry if I lost you or you became bored by the end”

      Hi brcarthey, not at all.

      Your writing excellently illustrates the angst and conflicting feelings many of us have about these drone attacks.

      You bring up so many points that I would like to address individually, but probably would do better in a separate column, but one in which I will quote and refer to writings and studies of experts much better versed in international law, the rules of war, military tactics, etc., than I ever could be.

      For example, one of those experts argues the case that the drone strikes do not violate the rules of war “and that they require no more legal overview than was given in thousands of bomber raids in World War II.” As to invoking international law, he quotes parts of the The Hague Convention of 1907 that states:

      The laws, rights, and duties of war apply not only to armies, but also to militia and volunteer corps fulfilling the following conditions:

      To be commanded by a person responsible for his subordinates;
      To have a fixed distinctive emblem recognizable at a distance;
      To carry arms openly; and
      To conduct their operations in accordance with the laws and customs of war

      As to the oft-quoted 1949 Geneva Convention:

      Members of other militias and members of other volunteer corps, including those of organized resistance movements, belonging to a Party to the conflict and operating in or outside their own territory, even if this territory is occupied, provided that such militias or volunteer corps, including such organized resistance movements, fulfill the following conditions:

      (a) that of being commanded by a person responsible for his subordinates;
      (b) that of having a fixed distinctive sign recognizable at a distance;
      (c) that of carrying arms openly;
      (d) that of conducting their operations in accordance with the laws and customs of war.

      The author claims:

      Ignoring the question of whether jihadist operations are in accordance with the rules and customs of war, their failure to carry a “fixed distinctive sign recognizable at a distance” is a violation of both the Hague and Geneva conventions. This means that considerations given to soldiers under the rules of war do not apply to those waging war without insignia.

      Of course, many will say, this is just a technicality. Perhaps. Just some (more) food for thought…

      Read more: Hellfire, Morality and Strategy | Stratfor

  • Russia has separatist groups in some of its provinces, and some of the radical elements of those separatist groups have enagaged in tactics that could be referred to as terrorism.

    By the logic above, Russia would be acting within the rules of the Geneva Conventions if it sent drones into the United States to take out indviduals who supported or belonged to such separatist groups, even if using drone warfare in that manner resulted in killing innocent American citizens as “collateral damage.”

    Are you sure the above is an interpretation of the Geneva Conventions you are comfortable with? Or does the above interpretation only apply when Americans do it, but not when others might be able to justify doing it to us?

    • DORIAN DE WIND, Military Affairs Columnist

      “Are you sure the above is an interpretation of the Geneva Conventions you are comfortable with?”

      I do not believe I have said that I am “comfortable” with any of this. I am providing points of view as I have been doing all along.

      I have expressed my own opinions on drones, both for military and “civilian” purposes — as you have – several times now.

      I will address your point in more detail in a future post,

      Thanks for your comment.

    • DORIAN DE WIND, Military Affairs Columnist

      Finished sooner than I thought with my chores.

      I will address your Russia separatists hypothetical according to my oft-stated view on the use of drones to take out terrorists that will do us harm.

      That position being:

      I believe that drones can and should be used abroad to take out terrorist combatants, but only IF:

      – An individual poses a known, verifiable, clear and imminent threat to America and Americans (e.g. about to blow up an aircraft, launch a missile, blow up a U.S. consulate or embassy, launch an attack on U.S. soil, etc.)

      – The terrorist suspect cannot be apprehended and otherwise neutralized in a timely manner using other resources or means, or/and when the host government is non-existent (e.g. Somalia), cannot (e.g. Yemen) or will not (e.g. “many”) take action itself.

      – Everything possible is done to avoid or minimize collateral damage.

      And provided judicial oversight is exercised by a body similar to the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act court, especially if Americans-turned-terrorists are involved.

      If Russia had irrefutable evidence that a Russian separatist terrorist or a group of Russian separatist terrorists in the US were posing a known, verifiable, clear and imminent threat to Russia and Russians, I believe that Russia would ask the United States government to apprehend those terrorists and either bring them to justice in the U.S. or turn them over to Russia for trial and I believe — although this may be naïve on my part — that the U.S. would cooperate.

      Finally, Elijah, you and I disagree significantly on this issue, but I do respect your views as I know you respect mine.


  • Dorian,

    If I mistakenly associated your position with the interpretation of the Geneva Conventions you quoted in your prior comment, please accept my apology.


    • DORIAN DE WIND, Military Affairs Columnist

      Hi Elijah,

      No need to apologize, yet, because I have not yet expressed my position on the interpretation of the various Conventions.

      When I express my position you may find that I am guilty as charged. 🙂

      I will also, a soon as I get some “honeydo’s done around the house, give my pedestrian response to your Russian hypothetical.

      Thanks for your patience.

  • Unfortunately, I will not be available for most of the day today beginning in just a few minutes.

    One note, lest we waste time and energy disagreeing about irrelevancies: it is the US position that the Geneva Conventions do not apply to the never ending “war on terror”. That is why, through two administrations, Gitmo has “enemy combatants”, not prisoners of war.

  • Oh my. This is exactly what I feared.

    My hypothetical about Russian separatists was based on your quotes concerning interpretation of the Geneva Conventions. It had nothing to do with the US DOJ White Paper criteria. Inserting the White Paper criteria into the Geneva Conventions doesn’t work. Russia is bound by the Geneva Conventions; it is not bound by our DOJ’s White Paper, and the White Paper criteria are not part of the Geneva Conventions.

    Humorouly, I considered making a comment that any retort to the Russian separatist hypothetical could not reference the White Paper. Of course, the definitions contained in the White Paper, especially “imminent threat”, is a subject for an entirely different discussion.

    You are correct that we dramatically disagree on the subject of drone policy. For what it’s worth, I hope you are right. But, you’re not. 🙂

    It is not easy to be in disagreement with a fellow TMV author for whom I have great respect. Thank you for understanding.

    • DORIAN DE WIND, Military Affairs Columnist

      “You are correct that we dramatically disagree on the subject of drone policy. For what it’s worth, I hope you are right. But, you’re not”

      It must be very self-satisfying and self-important to have the certitude to tell another person that his views and opinions are flat out wrong. Well, that ends this “debate.”

  • ordinarysparrow

    Dorian a simple question, if you don’t mind..

    As you have peeled this and continue to peer into the many layers of drones…has there been any shifting towards pro or con?… At the beginning you said you did not share to change opinions.. i see that as honoring.. when i am honest within myself am not as clear or honorable as you… for i would like you to have a turnaround on drone technology…

    Guess that is not likely to happen? What would it take for you to find a ‘no’ on this one? And this is asked respectfully….

    • DORIAN DE WIND, Military Affairs Columnist

      Hi, OS.

      Yours is a very fair question and I will answer it as soon as I have regained a certain amount of self-confidence after it has been pointed out to me how wrong my principles are. 🙂

    • DORIAN DE WIND, Military Affairs Columnist

      OK, Ordinary sparrow, I have recovered 🙂

      Yes, there has been a little shifting on my part on the drones for military purposes issue.

      Initially, as you can go back and check, my conditions for using drones to take out terrorists were as follows:

      I believe that drones can and should be used abroad to take out terrorist combatants, but only IF:

      – An individual poses a known, verifiable, clear and imminent threat to America and Americans (e.g. about to blow up an aircraft, launch a missile, blow up a U.S. consulate or embassy, launch an attack on U.S. soil, etc.)

      – The terrorist suspect cannot be apprehended and otherwise neutralized in a timely manner using other resources or means, or/and when the host government is non-existent (e.g. Somalia), cannot (e.g. Yemen) or will not (e.g. “many”) take action itself.

      – Everything possible is done to avoid or minimize collateral damage.

      As the debate in Congress and the media — using your words — “peeled” some additional layers, or arguments, I did feel that there should be some impartial, judicial process that should oversee the president’s, the CIA’s or the military’s sole authority on this and I added:

      “And provided judicial oversight is exercised by a body similar to the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act court, especially if Americans-turned-terrorists are involved.”

      So, yes, with additional thought and reflection, I can modify my views.

      As to changing people’s opinions, that is not my primary purpose of writing about this issue, or any issue. When I see or read views that are controversial, that are being attacked, but ones that I — rightly or wrongly support — I just feel that I should express my views and opinions. I have done that with gay rights, gays in the military, immigration, the poor, veterans’ issues, women rights, etc., etc. I don’t expect people to agree with me, but I do hope that people would respect my right to express such opinions, regardless of how wrong they find them to be.

      When it comes to drone “technology” for domestic purposes, I believe that I fully share with you your concerns as to privacy and other individual rights.

      “And this is asked respectfully….” No need to even say this, OS. You have been most respectful and a pleasure to discuss my views with. Thank you

  • ordinarysparrow

    Thanks Dorian… laughed with the first sentence…so glad to hear of the recovery… 🙂 You have a good bounce…

    Just want to say what is most evident…. in the disagreement both of you come from the best within you, which is a love of country and the welfare of real people… i respect that…

    Thought you were leaning a bit from where you started… that is good… 🙂
    So wish the U.S. would turn around on this one.. am interested in the angle that is being discussed today. It seems the only chance of drone warfare not crossing the Rubicon is for it to be a violation of the Geneva Convention. I think this is what ES hopes for too, only chance in pulling this one back is by the law. Here i see the importance of and need for International and domestic Laws like i haven’t in a long time.

    Have been reading posts from Al Jazeera and Iran on the drones and continue to search as many different angles as possible…One of my biggest concerns is the unchecked capitalism of the military industrial manufactures which is willing to sale to the highest bidder…Much of it carries the stench of Cheney’s Neo-Conservative breath. When we continue to open the doors to profit over people how do we not turn into a Corporate fascism? Drone’s feel like the point of no return.

    For too many years the Native American had their treaties violated, they were stripped of all rights and property , then it took even more years for them to see their only recourse was use to laws for protection and reparation…Just seems like the faces change, the groups change, but it is the same game by those that seek domination. How long before we are the conquered people by those that seek power through profit and domination over others?

    We are upside down…

    Dorian thanks for giving the issue of drones your best… this issue is passionate not because of who any of us are against, but rather for what and who we are for… and thanks for your kind words…

  • dduck

    Funny, I seldom look for certitude on an issue such as drones. Both ES and DDW are correct to some extent and also not so much. The drone is a mindless beast or a long range observer, and as a weapon it sometimes is ill used or is a way to kill the unreachable. As an eye in the sky it can be intrusive on privacy or save lives if it can find bad guys where other methods fail. In short, it is a tool and has to be used properly for it to be its most effective, and yes there are consequences both morally and physically.
    Btw, I was looking up the English longbow, a devastating weapon in its time, and found this consequence: “Edward IV was another strong opponent of football. In 1477 he passed a law that stipulated that “no person shall practise any unlawful games such as dice, quoits, football and such games, but that every strong and able-bodied person shall practise with bow for the reason that the national defence depends upon such bowmen.” Previous other Edwards also banned football.

    • DORIAN DE WIND, Military Affairs Columnist

      Thank you for those comments, dduck. Very good and objective.

  • Dorian,

    When you quoted me above, you left out the smiley face. The smiley face was part of my comment to indicate that it was not a seriou part of my remarks.

    If you’d like to address this off site, and perhaps calm the waters a bit [which I would welcome] drop me an email at [email protected]. Up to you.

    • DORIAN DE WIND, Military Affairs Columnist

      Very kind of you, Elijah, but not necessary.

      As I told OS, I recovered almost immediately 🙂

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