New Weapon Must Be Debated

05/16/2011 07:17 pm ET | Updated Jul 16, 2011

Two weeks ago, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates approved the use of unmanned drone attacks on Libyans. These weapons are less accurate than the government purports and give the American Empire an eerie Orwellian image around the world. Americans have yet to come to grips with the ways that this weapon is fundamentally changing the U.S. military's approach to battle. Similarly, human rights activists have not developed a framework to understand how to react to the use of these weapons.

Drone attacks have drastically increased under President Obama. The New American Foundation estimates that President Bush ordered 43 drone strikes between 2004 and 2008. President Obama launched 118, nearly three times as many, in 2010 alone. It seems that the President sees these unmanned flights as the future of American warfare. As of mid 2010 the U.S. had more then 7,000 unmanned aerial systems in our inventory.

In the press conference announcing the deployment of drones to Libya, Secretary Gates praised the aircrafts for giving the mission new precision capability. But how precise are these weapons? The Brookings Institution estimates that 10 civilians may be killed for every one militant in each strike on Pakistan. Is this the best way to win the battle for hearts and minds? It appears not. In Pakistan, where the U.S. has already conducted six times more airstrikes than it did as part of the NATO mission into Serbia during the 1999 Kosovo War, public opinion is overwhelmingly against the strikes and looks unfavorably on the U.S. for launching them.

How does taking the risk of loosing one side's soldiers' out of battle change the ethics of doing war? A famous ethics thought experiment posits, "If a trolley car containing five people is barreling towards a cliff, leading to the certain death of its riders, would it be ethical to flip a switch and change the course of the car on to a track where it would run over a man tied to the track? Ending one life to save five." When polled, most people agree that it would be ethical. However, take out the switch separating the individual from the subject and ask, "would it be ethical to throw a man over a bridge to stop the trolley?" and people tend to respond, "no." Do these weapons take the American public another degree of separation from the wars that America fights, making it easier to kill?

In a 2009 New Yorker article, NYU Law Professor Shami Hani pointed out a revealing contradiction in U.S. debate over the tools of war. She observed that in 2008 the Wall Street Journal ran an article revealing that the Bush administration had been planning to create a hit squad to travel around the world and kill suspected terrorists. The article was met with outrage from the international legal community and lead to a congressional investigation of the subject. However, it is publically known that the government has a program of targeted assassination through the use of drones, and no such uproar has occurred. In the same article former C.I.A. lawyer, Vicki Divoll, observed, bluntly "People are a lot more comfortable with a Predator [drone] strike that kills many people than with a throat-slitting that kills one."

The CIA has run most of the drone strikes. This poses a number of problems. The Agency is a civilian organization; it does not posses the same types of internal accountability mechanisms that the military has developed to safe guard against abuse. Its work is secret, hidden from the scrutiny of the public. Often even Congress is kept in the dark about its activities.

How is the U.S. getting the intelligence for these raids? Much has been written about how imperfect the system of informants has been, given that there are so many people looking to get even for one reason or another. If a terrorist is spotted in Pakistan, someone reports that. The next person must want to know 'where is he now?" How do we know we are killing the right people?

We Americans must start a debate about these weapons. To date there has been no serious and widespread ethical discussion of their use in the U.S. media or in the streets. There has never even been a poll of American opinion about their use. No major human rights organization has released an extensive report about the effects of these weapons on the ground, and I have yet to hear a real discussion on any of the talk shows.

As a human rights community, we must figure out how to judge these strikes. Are they extrajudicial killings? How many additional noncombatant deaths are worth one militant?

My feeling is that if the evidence were properly weighed it would be more than enough to support an international campaign against these weapons such as the one which brought an international ban on land-mines. But it all starts with public debate.