02/13/2012 11:37 am ET | Updated Apr 14, 2012

How Drones Challenge Our Political System

The use of drones for military purposes is accelerating rapidly, accompanied by some commentary and public discussion of the impact and implications of their use. Thus far, however, the discussion has omitted some of the most important implications of the continuing development of drones. To better understand the problems raised by drones, it is essential to set them within the context of the broader crisis our political system faces today.

The overarching problem our political system faces is political decay, described by such scholars as Samuel Huntington and Francis Fukuyama as the dysfunction that occurs when institutions created to deal with one environment become incapable of handling conditions as that environment changes. In our time, we are witnessing the failure of our institutions, as well as widely held emotions, psychology, values, and understanding, to keep pace with a rapidly changing physical, social, and organizational environment driven by an ever-accelerating pace of scientific understanding and technological change. That decay underlies the intractability of the most serious issues and controversies that dominate our headlines, animate social conflict, and often agonize the consciences of our most thoughtful analysts. Our use of drones and the robotics accompanying them illustrate only one, but a particularly vexing, example of that problem.

The questions our use of drones has raised thus far are not trivial. How much collateral damage (i.e., death of innocents) is an unavoidable consequence of drone use? How much damage is acceptable in killing terrorists and terrorist leaders? Where may drones ethically be used, and on whom? What are the implications and consequences of having killing machines directed from afar, using programs that appear much like video games and could be having approximately the same emotional impact on those who direct them? Will their use cause blowback, breeding more terrorists than they kill? Is the way we are using drones legal? Is it moral? Can it even be reconciled with fundamental Constitutional principles?

A quick review of the functions performed by drones and the devices and practices they have partially replaced dispels any notion that we will find simple answers to all the problems they present. In fact, the old dilemmas were at least as serious, although familiarity has tended to inure us to them. In the past, we firebombed entire cities, resulting in tens of thousands of civilian deaths. During WW II, and the Korean and Vietnamese wars, most incidents resulting in massive civilian casualties did not throw a majority of the American people into a moral quandary, even though there was considerable turmoil about engaging in the Vietnam War in general. Then during the first Iraq war we began to use "smart bombs" advertised as being precisely targetable, so we could hit specified buildings. It turned out "smart bombs" weren't always as accurate as advertised, but while there was some public discussion of this, there was very little concern expressed about the element of intentional targeting. Near the beginning of the second Iraq war, when the U.S. targeted a building in which Saddam Hussein was thought to be staying, little public dismay followed. The "smart bombs" didn't get Hussein, and some question was raised about the targeting of an individual, but not much. Now, with the help of drones, we try to target individuals, with inevitable "collateral damage." That raises questions about whether it is really assassination in which we are engaged and about the "collateral damage." All other things being equal, though, it is hard to argue on a purely moral basis that our current use of drones is really worse than bombing from B52's which, even if it had primarily military targets, was highly inaccurate and inevitably killed a lot of civilians. There is an even wider gap between the firebombing of entire cities and minimal drone use.

All other things are not equal, however. Factors that would not arise without new technology bring new questions. Advancing technology has brought tremendous destructive power within the capabilities of small groups and even individuals. The threat thus presented has evoked terror in entire populations and military responses of a magnitude once reserved for wars among nation states. Drones actually provide a way to step down the destructiveness of our military operations. The relative accuracy of drones and the relative potency of enemies not exclusively situated in or acting on behalf of a nation-state have prompted belief that it is justified to target individuals, including American citizens, who are within countries with which we are not at war. Furthermore, our use of drones has not been minimal. We have apparently targeted rescuers and mourners resulting in substantial loss of life. The American public seems to condone practices that once would have been widely understood to be beyond the pale. ) Our leaders claim the necessities of war, but whatever the necessities are and however war is defined, it remains quite a stretch to maintain our Constitution and laws provide for what amounts to assassination, not to speak of follow-up actions that once would have earned the consensus label of "atrocities." Are we legally "at war" with a non-governmental organization with no identifiable geographic base? How small can that organization be? Will a conspiracy of a few people do? How about a "lone wolf" who nevertheless may have frightening destructive power, especially as that power increases exponentially with advancing technology? How does that fit with, for instance, our history with Mafia figures "everyone knew" to be highly disruptive, destructive, and frequently lethal but whom we nevertheless did not so much as detain without due process of law? U.S. legal authorities may try to draw up fine legal points to obviate the Constitution's seemingly clear requirement that no person shall be deprived of life liberty or property without due process of law, but we are clearly not, as it were, "in Kansas" any more.

Many fine lawyers and serious commentators are already in deep and sometimes horrified arguments about the issues described above, however, and I have nothing enlightening to add to what they have already said and will say, although most of them may not recognize that the context of their arguments is set by political decay. I want to focus on some less morally based and legalistic but probably even more challenging problems.

There is little doubt that we will soon be able to target individuals with almost no "collateral damage." The military is developing mini-drones of highly varied sizes and capabilities. In a few years, they will no doubt be able to deploy something the size of a hummingbird, or perhaps a bumble-bee, that would seek out an individual (who might be identified through image recognition and artificial intelligence) and deliver, for instance, a lethal poison or tiny explosion directly on a target's temple, perhaps after being released from a larger drone. Maybe a swarm of tiny drones will be most practical for certain purposes. Now that is indistinguishable from assassination. The most murderous Borgia would be delighted with such devices.

Leave aside the legal questions and the question of whether minimal use of such devices is more or less moral than the bombing we've traditionally done. Consider that the U.S. government even now has no monopoly on drones, as their use has spread to other nations as well as domestic law enforcement agencies. Sooner or later (and, I would wager, uncomfortably soon) drones and their descendants will be in the hands of terrorist organizations, or even individuals. It is hard to imagine what might be an effective defense against them, and no public figure anywhere, the President of the United States included, will be safe.

It may take only a few prominent tragedies before nations will seek to outlaw any drones they cannot monopolize, and certainly any small drones employing artificial intelligence, just as, for instance, mustard gas was outlawed. Unfortunately, once the technology for making drones is highly developed and widely available, it is hard to see how any ban could be made effective. One can even imagine institutional blocks to a ban in the U.S. The NRA, for instance, will perhaps decide that drones small enough for an individual to carry deserve Second Amendment protection. So-called originalists on the Supreme Court who, even today, think the founders meant to include automatic weapons among the arms they wrote of during our revolutionary period will no doubt have equal difficulty distinguishing between front-loading muskets and lethal little drones. We can expect the Court to be highly protective of any commercial interests that might be damaged by a ban on drones. The manifestation of political decay that has elevated corporate profit above so many values our country once deemed absolute could thus cripple the effort to protect ourselves against even this excrescence of technology. It would be wise to begin control of drone usage now, before corporate commitment to the profits derived from them becomes too great. Unfortunately, leadership in this area does not seem likely from the one nation in the world that currently cannot even bring itself to join the international ban on land mines.