Wednesday, February 13, 2013

Thoughts on Drones

I decided I would write an essay called "thoughts on drones," because as we enter a time of their increasing presence, all of us would do well to think more about them.  Drones are a military matter, but the experience of history tells us that we should never trust the judgment of the military as a matter of course.  These issues require careful thought.  In that sense, they are not unique, but we as a nation could certainly use the practice.

By drones, of course, I am referring to the unmanned aerial vehicles owned by the government.  In principle, a drone is no different from an airplane or a helicopter; it flies according to the same physics and is subject to the same basic limitations.  The key difference is that a drone does not carry people; it is controlled by radio from the ground, but in many cases can perform many of its functions autonomously, via programming and artificial intelligence.

Does that frighten you?  It's an important question.  We're all generally familiar with nightmare science fiction scenarios: robots possessed of consciousness and intelligence rising up to destroy us on capricious whim.  Even the idea that their most important (and often lethal) functions are under the control of the military or the police is suggestive of dystopian visions of futuristic totalitarian states, where the machines represent the iron force of a corrupt humanity.  Symbolism and fiction stoke our imaginations, and our imaginations can bewilder us and cause panic.

So before you can form a meaningful opinion, you must be sure of whether or not you are afraid of the drone.  Consider carefully.

The cause for fear is not only cultural: the use of drones in Pakistan and elsewhere has demonstrated their efficacy in killing, and their utility for spying is self-evident.  On top of that, the Obama administration has seemingly claimed the right to use drones to target and kill "enemy combatants" without due process, even if they are Americans.  The notion of such a machine firing a missile at a criminal suspect in the United States may seem so dramatic and outrageous as to be nearly unthinkable, but there is a line of logic that could lead to such a policy.  It's within the technical capability of the government, and a firmly and clearly stated policy prohibiting it would do a lot to allay concerns.

Sadly, the government seems to be opting for more ambiguity on the drone issue.  Obama's words imply he supports limits on the program, but no meaningful limits exist; or if they do, we aren't allowed to know what they are.  That has to change: we can't hold the government accountable to its own rules if the rules are secret.

But in spite of all that, I find the notion of drones as the instruments of a new totalitarianism to be slightly overblown.  Virtually everything the government does has been decried as Nazism or Stalinism by somebody, ever since those words were first uttered.  Many things the government has done have been outrageously wrong or illegal, but it betrays the privileged historical perspective of Americans that they can compare minute increases in the tax rates of the rich to storm troopers and extermination camps, all with a straight face. We cry oppression too easily in the face of abstract possibilities, while we ignore it in the actual fact of systemic poverty and police brutality.

Obviously, a fleet of drones could be used to control a fascist nightmare society through violence and surveillance.  It could also be used for legitimate and useful functions, especially with regard to searches for people in trouble, or dangerous criminals on the run.  Much was made this week about mass shooter Christopher Dorner being the "first American on U.S. soil to be targeted by drones," a claim that now appears to be untrue.  But even if he were being hunted by a drone, would it have been any more problematic than using a helicopter for aerial searches?  Does the use of drones in police actions really introduce new problems, or does it just add new dimensions to old ones?

As for the problem of drones acting autonomously, I find it hard to take that seriously.  A drone that could initiate a Skynet-style campaign of its own volition is clearly not something that the government would ever allow in the air, and a random misfire is probably a very low risk, compared to all the other risks that exist.

So far as I'm concerned, I don't fear drones, any more than I fear the already considerable powers of the government to use force against the people.  They are a potent symbol of dangerous possibility, but I don't think they introduce that much more actual risk to our lives than overzealous cops or muddy, ambiguous policies.

My thoughts are guided by the assumption (and it is only an assumption) that the government means to act in good faith; that though it may be wrong and misguided, it is trying to make our lives better.  That it may fail catastrophically is precisely the reason we are supposed to have oversight over it. 

I don't like armed drones, any more than I like bombers or nuclear missiles.  But in a realist examination of the requirements of a modern military, I can't exactly blame drones for existing, or deny their legitimate uses.  They're all part and parcel of the same old military-industrial complex we've had all along, and the same set of shoulds apply as they always have: more oversight, fewer wars, and less money diverted from vital domestic needs.  Drones are the newest thing, but they are not unique, and they don't change the basic equation we've faced for decades.


  1. So I reread this, another excellent essay btw. You write quite well. I wanted to see if I could discover why the overall effect upon me was one of antipathy. Taken individually I find I must agree with all points made - - - providing I accept your assumption (which to your credit you clearly state) that the government means to act in good faith though it may be wrong or misguided. This premise I cannot accept which invalidates (for me) many of the other statements made. You have yourself stated elsewhere that the term 'government' refers to the people whose job it is to manage the state and that "the only people who stand to gain from totalitarianism are the individuals in power and the individuals they favor." Furthermore you recognize that there are among those in power at any given time some "acting in the interests of the government at the expense of the state," thereby weakening the state and hurting society. This then is where our main concern as citizens ought be directed rather than specifically toward the matter of aerial drones. For me it boils down to this: the government controls the drones (as well as most other forms of technological and societal power.) Who, then, controls the government? Who should? And can we as a society afford to relinquish as much control over our lives as we have? (genqueue)

  2. I suppose to state my position more clearly, I must say this: when I say the government means to do good, I specifically meant the Obama administration, the people presently in power. Among those people, the purity of their intentions surely varies, just as it must surely vary among administrations. But I have a basic sort of faith that most people do what they do because they believe it is good (or at least justifiable) to do so, even if they have short-sighted or selfish views about what is good. So I definitely don't believe that this or any other administration means to do evil for evil's sake.

  3. If that is so, and it may well be, then we must attribute an inordinate amount of grievous action on the part of those currently in power to short-sightedness and ignorance. I fail to see how it makes all that much difference in the long run whether we ruin ourselves through ignorance or through malice.(genqueue)