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The Psycho Logic of Drones

The logic of drones seems impeccable. Using unimpeachable intelligence, the precise location of a "high-value target" is identified. The intelligence service relays precise coordinates of the target's location to a drone operator in New Mexico who then fires up an Unmanned Aerial Vehicle (UAV) near, say, Pakistan, which flies directly to the target and unleashes a smart bomb, one which surgically strikes its target. A bad guy is killed without collateral damage and with no loss of U.S. life.

If only it were so.

Recent reports by Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch tell a different story. Our drones have killed countless innocent civilians and terrorized young children; and they have proven vastly more effective than Al Qaeda in turning Muslims against the United States.

Although President Obama has assured us that our drones don't hit civilians, a shocking video from the Brave New Foundation demonstrates otherwise. We have not, official U.S. lies to the contrary, hit only enemy combatants. We have knowingly killed 40 civilians here, 35 there, and who knows how many over there. Amnesty cites estimates that the U.S. launched as many as 374 drone strikes in Pakistan from 2004 to the end of last month, killing as many as 900 civilians and seriously injuring at least 600 others.

It would take a dozen or more Boston Marathon bombers to equal the civilian destruction of a single US drone strike in Pakistan on March 17, 2011. Our drone policy is appallingly immoral, arguably illegal, and clearly counterproductive.

So, to be clear, drones don't just strategically hit "targets," they kill innocent people. That's a metaphor really -- drone operators kill innocent people (by implication, President Obama kills innocent people). Despite the confident insistence of John Brennan, director of the CIA and Obama's former chief counter-terrorism adviser, that there were no civilian casualties for "almost a year," the Bureau of Investigative Journalism has conclusively demonstrated otherwise. Our bombs are not so smart that they can differentiate between enemy combatant and innocent civilian. In 2009 the Brookings Institute issued a report claiming the death of ten innocents for every militant killed.

Some may applaud the courage of the president for making the decision to kill for the greater good. Perhaps applause will come from the same people who condoned torture during the former president's reign of terror. But make no mistake, our drone policy, like our former torture policy, is part and parcel of the same U.S. reign of terror.

"Reign of terror"? Isn't such language extravagantly emotive and inflammatory?

I think not. Drones create fear wherever they fly. You might think that a good thing -- if they can scare the crap out of our enemies, more power to them. But drones don't fly just over enemy combatants, they mostly fly over innocent civilians. And that's bad.

The ubiquity of drones, flying day and night in various parts of Afghanistan, Pakistan, and now Yemen inflicts severe psychological harm on those who live nearby. Again, one might think that inflicting severe psychological harm on our enemies well justified. But enemy combatants are a tiny minority of those psychologically harmed by drones. The most obvious cost is incurred when a loved one is maimed or killed. But the constant humming of drones, day and night, that might at a moment's notice release their deadly cargo, even on those who have run to a bomb site to aid the injured, has driven children indoors and into nightmares. Recent studies suggest that children who live under drones suffer from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, and PTSD is much more psychologically debilitating to children than it is to adults.

Finally, our drone policy has turned more Arab allies into terrorists than any radical preacher. Yemeni leaders have called drones "a recruiting card for Al Qaeda." Watching one's innocent family members and friends being killed or maimed by a misguided U.S. bomb creates the conditions of hatred for the U.S. that incite opposition and even terrorism.

Both the Afghan and the Iraq wars were started by men who have never been in combat. George Bush barely showed up for his tour of "duty." There hasn't been a war on U.S. soil for over two centuries. Drone pilots are 7,000 miles away from the action and President Obama is psychically even further away. In short, important decisions are being made by people who have never cowered in fear as bullets zip past or as jets fly overheard or as bombs explode nearby. And so, they have no sense of how psychologically debilitating -- again, mostly to innocent civilians -- are the constant hum of drones and the incessant fear of being bombed.

I am not in principle opposed to drones. War is about killing. But our drone policy needs to be dramatically downgraded and its effectiveness assessed.

We need to be constantly reminded that war kills and cripples innocent people. When a trigger is pulled thousands of miles away, we neglect those reminders. Presidents and cyber warriors should, at least once in their lives, look into the eyes of the human beings -- enemy and innocent -- they are harming and are about to kill.

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