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Ethics of Drone War; Fat Man, Thin Man, Innocent Baby…

Excerpted from a really good short introduction into the field of the philosophy/law of drone war, recently published by Stanford Law Review:  

The Obama Administration has ratcheted the use of remote drone attacks to unprecedented levels—the Bush Doctrine honed to rapier sharpness. The interesting question about the new model is one of ethics more than legality. Let us assume the principal ethical argument pressed in favor of drone warfare—to wit, that the reduction in civilian casualties and destruction of property means that the drone attack comports better than most other methods with the principle of discrimination. If this is so, then we might conclude that a just cause alone is sufficient to justify the attacks.

The most straightforward way of understanding the attacks on the leaders of terror groups is an effort to reduce the demand for terrorists. The supply side of terror is relatively stable: there are always people willing to die for a cause. But they need missions. By affecting the incentives of the leaders who plan the missions—and who must now factor in the not insignificant possibility of being blown to bits—the drone strategy seeks to affect the demand side. If the demand side is indeed the one that matters more, then the targeting of the leadership is entirely rational.

But is what we are doing truly self-defense?


It is one thing to rely on remote drone attacks to meet a present emergency.  It is something else altogether to turn them into the principal means of making war. My colleague Bruce Ackerman reminds us that the American Constitution “expresses a profound opposition to the normalization of emergency powers.”  Similarly, a reasonable public ethic would not allow the normalization of targeted killing. What is normal becomes the background of everyday life—no longer worth paying attention to.  

I am not suggesting that America has no enemies in the post-Iraq world, or that killing enemy leaders can never be justified. My ethical worry is more practical: if the drone war slips from our consciousness, we will never get around to deciding whether to oppose it.