It isn’t the Drones that are the Problem

© Josh Sager – February 2012


The United States drone program has been extremely controversial and has raised questions about the legality of the conduct of the American foreign policy. For the past several years, the United States military and intelligence community have engaged in a campaign of drone-based assassination of “key” terrorist leaders; this campaign has flown in the face of international convention and has failed to respect any international borders. In addition to the international issues brought up by the drone program, domestic critics have become enraged at the program’s assassination of Americans without due process and veil of secrecy.

Unfortunately, the real issue that is brought up by the conduct of the drone program is not actually about drones. Drones are simply a weapon system and it is the policies that guide these weapons that are the true the real problems. The drone strikes in question could easily be replaced by manned strikes and the contention surrounding them would remain. The drone program illustrates that our government has taken a very wrong step and, if we don’t correct it, will continue down the wrong path.

The implementation of the American drone program has demonstrated several extremely worrying components of our country’s foreign policy:

  • The Executive branch of the federal government asserts the right to kill American citizens without trial, presentation of evidence, or any due process of law—these operations are also so secret that not even congressional oversight committees are able to have access to records surrounding the program.
  • The US government is engaged in an asymmetrical war against a non-governmental foe and feels justified in violating the airspace of sovereign countries in order to kill their citizens—this is a terrible breach of international law and the USA only get away with it due to its overwhelming military power.
  • The US military and intelligence agencies have conducted missile strikes on unknown targets and civilians. In areas of Yemen and Pakistan, drone strikes would be called on “suspicious looking” targets in populated areas. In addition to this, the US government has practiced “double-taps”, where missile strikes would be intentionally directed at first responders and civilians attempting to help those injured during a primary strike.

It is undeniable that the drone program is being implemented in an immoral, unconstitutional, and potentially illegal manner, but simply focusing on drones is not the solution. It doesn’t matter whether a drone drops a bomb or a soldier takes a shot, the resulting deaths are just as egregious. Simply focusing on the drones’ use as an assassination tool—as unusual as it may be—and not the underlying policies is a grave mistake for those who would support reform. Even if we were to dissuade our government from using drones, it would still be violating international law and flaunting our constitutional civil rights.

Our government is targeting American citizens, civilians, and unknown individuals for summery assassination—the tool of execution is irrelevant.

Executing American citizens, regardless of suspected crimes, without due process is a complete abrogation of the law and a violation of the constitution. Unless Americans are actually engaged in violent acts against the authorities or military (ex. a shootout on a battlefield), there is no legal way for our government to execute them without due process. If the government suspects Americans of crimes then it is perfectly acceptable to arrest them or, if they fail to appear, even try them in absentia (if a suspect flees, they can forfeit their right to appear at trial and be tried in absentia); even if we suspect Americans of the terrible crime of terrorism, they are accorded their rights under the law and must be tried for their crimes before they are punished.

Executing civilians is a violation of international law and the laws of war—it is a crime that our country has executed people for. Under the Geneva Convention, intentionally targeting civilians is a war crime and is legally punishable. As it is undeniable that our government is intentionally targeting first responders and good Samaritans during “double tap” strikes, then it is evident that our country has violated international law.

Violating the sovereign territory of other countries in a campaign against non-governmental groups is against international law. While there are certainly cases for exigency (ex. a gunfight that travels across borders and resulting in accidental breaches of national sovereignty), our government is running prolonged assassination campaigns in supposedly “allied” countries. What our government is doing is equivalent to Mexico declaring a war on drugs and running an assassination program that travels into the United States in order to stop the drug sales; this program kills Americans on suspicion of drug involvement without even identifying them and subjects entire regions to long-term bombing campaigns. As is obvious, such a program would not be tolerated by the USA and we would consider it a complete violation of international law (rightly so). Unfortunately, many are willing to turn the other way while we subject other countries to such violations, if only our leaders con promise that we will be safer.

Utilizing drones to perpetrate illegal strikes may be a new and unusually detached way of violating the law, but it changes nothing about the underlying violation. Our country must stop flaunting international law, the constitution and common decency in the ways that it has during the drone program’s execution. This program may now use drones to implement it, but it would be just as terrible if it were implemented through boots on the ground or manned jet strikes; as such, we must demand that our government stop these illegal actions, not just that they should stop using drones. If we want to continue using drones for legal operations, that is another argument and should be detached from the main conflict over the current drone program.

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