Say the government planned on launching an attack on al Qaeda militants in Yemen. The joint chiefs of staff predict that American soldiers will die. Would you support the mission?
What if the government used drones instead of troops? No Americans would die, but innocent foreigners would. Could you get behind that?
James Walsh, a political science professor at the University of North Carolina, posed versions of these questions to people who participated in a recent internet survey.
Although participants generally said they'd support a drone attack in which no innocent lives were lost, they were much less likely to support either of the hypothetical scenarios described above -- a land attack with American military casualties or a drone attack with civilian ones.
In fact, the death of civilians was just as significant in causing support to plummet as the possibility of American military casualties.
"We know from a huge amount of research that U.S. military casualties are the most consistent factor that reduce support for use of force," he said. "But when the government uses drones, they're not going to kill American soldiers, so the question becomes, 'Who are they going to kill?' The salience of the discussion of civilian casualties might be greater."
The discussion of civilian casualties and the other costs (and benefits) of drone warfare is at the forefront this week as John O. Brennan, the architect of the government's drone program and President Barack Obama's nominee to take over the CIA, faces questions at a Senate confirmation hearing in Washington. The program is prompting difficult questions about the complexities of this new form of warfare.
Should we feel safer knowing that the government is using this technology? Should we be worried about how these killings affect America's international standing? And what about the use of drones to kill U.S. citizens identified as suspected terrorists?
In the fall of 2011, the Obama administration used drones to kill three Americans living in Yemen, including Anwar al-Awlaki, said to be a high-level al Qaeda operative, and his 16-year-old son. A Justice Department paper explaining the legal rationale for those killings leaked this week, adding fodder to the debate.
In an email to The Huffington Post, a reader from New Mexico said his brother was born in the same town as al-Awlaki.
"I voted for Mr. Obama, twice," he wrote, "and feel he's in a much better position than I to judge what's necessary to protect our country. He's privy to an incredible amount of information, that I will never see or even read, that would help him make what must be, hopefully, a hard decision.
"But, I have to admit, it just seems wrong," he added. (The reader did not consent to having his name used in the story.) "In a time of war, is it permissible to assassinate traitors? How do we know he's a traitor? Shouldn't evidence proving someone's guilt still need to be presented to a jury, before a decision is made? Doesn't one have the right to face their accusers?"
"If I have to give a quick yes or no answer, it's no, we should not be killing American citizens without a trial and the opportunity to defend themselves in a court of law."
As the media continues to shine light on the program, polls suggest that more and more Americans will take a similarly critical position. Because drones are so new, polling data on American public opinion is scarce, but the available research paints a complicated picture. It shows that Americans support the idea of drones, but only to a point.
When asked to consider factors like collateral damage or the possibility that drones could be used to kill Americans, respondents' support drops considerably.
In a HuffPost/YouGov survey launched last month, 59 percent said they approve of the Obama administration using drones to kill high-level terrorism suspects overseas. Eighteen percent disapprove, and 24 percent said they aren't sure.
Asked about the Obama administration's practice of using drones to kill high-level terrorism suspects who happened to be American citizens, only 44 percent of participants in the same survey said they approve, compared with 26 percent who disapprove. The "not sure" category grew to 30 percent.
A new survey by Farleigh Dickinson University seems also suggests that Americans widely condemn the use of drones against U.S. citizens.
By a 2-to-1 margin, according to a university press release, American voters said they think it's illegal for the government to deploy drones against its own citizens living abroad.
Just 24 percent say it is legal, agreeing with the position taken by the United States Attorney's Office and the Obama administration.
“The public clearly makes an assumption very different from that of the Obama administration or Mr. Brennan: The public thinks targeting American citizens abroad is out of bounds,” Peter Woolley, professor of political science at Farleigh Dickinson University, said in the statement.
To get a more detailed picture of how people feel about drones, the Huffington Post reached out to readers living in Utah, Iowa, Oregon and New Mexico -- four of the states represented by senators who sent Obama a letter asking for a legal justification of the drone strikes.
Of the 180 who responded, many took a hard stance either for or against the program. But some expressed ambivalence. "I am sad every time I hear of innocent people killed during a drone attack," wrote Dick Heimer, a retired high school principal from Sheffield, Iowa. "The term "collateral damage" is obscene. But I had uncles serve in World War II, older friends serve in Korea, a brother and classmates serve in Viet Nam, and kids from my hometown serve in Iraq and Afghanistan. And I know from their experiences that innocent people die during a war. It's the nature of the stupidity of war."