The Immoral Case for Drones

Scott Shane, in a recent news analysis piece for the New York Times, sets out to present “The Moral Case for Drones”, but grievously fails to present anything of the kind—quite the contrary.

Under that headline, Shane notes that the use of drones for “lethal operations inside sovereign countries that are not at war with the United States raise contentious legal questions.” Indeed, the case that drones strikes—which are being conducted in Pakistan, Yemen, and Somlia—are illegal is cut and dry. Article 2 of the U.N. Charter states that “All Members shall refrain in their international relations from the threat or use of force against the territorial integrity or political independence of any state, or in any other manner inconsistent with the Purposes of the United Nations.” Under the Charter, there are only two circumstances under which the use of force is legitimate (i.e., not illegal): One, when the use of force is in self-defense against armed aggression, and, two, when the U.N. Security Council has authorized it. These drone strikes are not actions that defend the United States from armed aggression against its borders or sovereignty, and they have not been authorized by the Security Council. Thus, they are incontrovertibly illegal. But nowhere in the article does Shane trouble himself to present an argument that the strikes are not in violation of international law, which would seem to be a requirement for any argument that they are also “moral”.

An image of a drone with angel wings that accompanies Scott Shane's article "The Moral Case for Drones" on the New York Times website (Vahram Muradyan/New York Times; reproduced here under the "fair use" clause of U.S. copyright law, 17 U.S.C. § 107, for news reporting, commentary, and criticism)
An image of a drone with angel wings that accompanies Scott Shane’s article “The Moral Case for Drones” on the New York Times website (Vahram Muradyan/New York Times; reproduced here under the “fair use” clause of U.S. copyright law, 17 U.S.C. § 107, for news reporting, commentary, and criticism)

Shane next points out that the strikes “have become a radicalizing force in some Muslim countries”, which is to say that they have served only to escalate the threat of terrorism. Once again, he makes no effort to explain how a use of violence that produces the opposite result of that ostensibly intended can possibly be at the same time a “moral” means by which to address the threat of terrorism.

“And proliferation [of drones] will inevitably put them in the hands of odious regimes,” Shane observes, and yet nowhere else comments on how the U.S. setting a dangerous precedent that will “inevitably” be followed elsewhere can possibly at the same time be a “moral” thing to do.

Shane rather attempts to shift attention away from the above objections by implying that “most critics” do not focus much on them, but rather “have focused on evidence that they are unintentionally killing innocent civilians.” Naturally, this has been the primary focus, but the implication that “most critics” focus on civilian casualties rather than these other objections is highly disingenuous. It is precisely because such actions endanger innocent lives that they are illegal under international law, for instance. The three former objections are quite obviously mutually reinforcing and not mutually exclusive to the latter. By framing it this way, however, Shane absolves himself of the responsibility of having to actually address the three other objections in presenting “The Moral Case for Drones”.

Proceeding on this basis, Shane allows that “there are serious questions about whether American officials have understated civilian deaths”, but he declines to elaborate to explain to readers why U.S. claims of low numbers of civilian casualties are not credible. This is remarkable, given the fact that Shane’s name appeared in the byline as co-author with Jo Becker on a Times piece that pointed out how President Obama has “embraced a disputed method for counting civilian casualties”, which “in effect counts all military-age males in a strike zone as combatants”. All adult male casualties are assumed guilty “unless there is explicit intelligence posthumously proving them innocent.”

Nowhere in presenting his “Moral Case for Drones” does Shane point out this fact. As will become clear, this is quite apparently because in making his “Moral Case”, he adopts this same standard.

He continues on to say that since these unspecified “serious questions” exist, “it may be a surprise to find that some moral philosophers, political scientists and weapons specialists believe armed, unmanned aircraft offer marked moral advantages over almost any other tool of warfare.” The central argument presented in favor of drones is that “their advantages in identifying targets and striking with precision.”

Shane thus presents the “Moral Case” not as his own but attributable to others. It is clear he wishes to leave readers with the impression that he, for his part, is objectively looking at both sides of the debate. And yet Shane doesn’t trouble himself to point out the obvious problem with this argument: that such “precision” is only as valuable as the accuracy of the information used for “identifying targets”, and that the claim that the U.S. is good at doing the latter depends upon defining any adult male as a “terrorist” unless otherwise proven innocent.

Shane quotes one defender of drones arguing that “all the evidence we have so far suggests that drones do better at both identifying the terrorist and avoiding collateral damage than anything else we have.” Drones, of course, don’t identify terrorists. Drone operators and their commanders do that, including by defining any unidentified adult male automatically as a “terrorist”. Shane demonstrates his lack of objectivity by attempting to relegate this fact to irrelevance in his “analysis”.

Shane does allow that, “Clearly, those advantages have not always been used competently or humanely; like any other weapon, armed drones can be used recklessly or on the basis of flawed intelligence. If an operator targets the wrong house, innocents will die.” But he doesn’t seem to think it appropriate to point out that, likewise, if an operator targets a location where there are unidentified adult males who are in fact civilians, then innocents will die in that case, as well.

Next, Shane cites one study by a political scientist that “considered four studies of drone deaths in Pakistan that estimated the proportion of civilian victims at 4 percent, 6 percent, 17 percent and 20 percent respectively.” He found that “even the high-end count of 20 percent was considerably lower than the rate in other settings”. Of course, it isn’t lower than it would be if there weren’t drone strikes, in which case precisely zero civilians would be killed in them. But what “other settings” did this study compare drone strikes to? 46% of those killed in Pakistan’s military operations in the Swat region were civilians, and 41% of those killed during Israel’s “targeted killings of militants from Hamas and other groups” were civilians.

Is this really the standard by which Americans should judge their government’s violence “moral” or not? Does it really follow that since other countries kill more civilians than we do, therefore our violence is “moral”?

Something further must be said about the cited example of Israel here. The 41% figure, Shane notes, comes from “an Israeli human rights group”. He refers to B’Tselem, a reputable organization that has compiled credible estimates of civilian casualties. From December 27, 2008 to January 18, 2009, Israel was involved in a full-scale military assault on the defenseless Gaza Strip, code-named “Operation Cast Lead”, during which Israel deliberately targeted residential homes, schools, hospitals, and other civilian infrastructure of Gaza. The numbers provided by B’Tselem are 1,390 Palestinians killed in Gaza, of whom 344 were children and 110 women. Only 20 of the 1,390 were “killed during the course of a targeted killing”, and only two of those were actually “the object” of the attack. Not including these victims of targeted killings, 759 of those killed “did not take part in the hostilities”. It is not known whether another 32 of those killed were or were not civilians, and only 349 of the 1,390 killed were known combatants. Another 248 were civilian law enforcement officers not engaged in hostilities and who were killed when Israel targeted police stations. Thus, only a quarter of those killed were known to have been participating in hostilities, meaning that 75% of casualties were civilians or of unknown status, with a minimum estimate of 55% of those killed known to have been civilians.

Clearly, Shane could not have been referring to “Operation Cast Lead” in offering a figure of 41%. So where did he pull this figure from? B’Tselem offers three sets of data on Israel’s use of targeted killings, categorized as occurring either before, during, or since that attack on Gaza. Up until that assault, Israel had killed 277 Palestinians, of which 150 were the targets of the attack. During, as already noted, 20 were killed, only 2 of whom were the actual targets. Since then, 26 have been killed, 21 of whom were the object of attack. All told, 323 Palestinians have been killed in targeted assassinations by Israel, only 174 of whom were actually the target of attack. Thus, nearly half, 46%, of those killed in such attacks, at a minimum (even allowing the dubious assumption that all of those actually targeted could be fairly considered “combatants”) were innocent bystanders—not 41%, as Shane asserts.

We once again return to our question: Is this the standard Americans should really hold themselves to when judging whether their government’s violence is “moral” or not?

To bolster the “Moral Case for Drones”, Shane next points to the Bureau of Investigative Journalism as having done “perhaps the most detailed and skeptical study of the strikes”. He states that “The bureau has documented a notable drop in the civilian proportion of drone casualties, to 16 percent of those killed in 2011 from 28 percent in 2008. This year, by the bureau’s count, just three of the 152 people killed in drone strikes through July 7 were civilians.”

Shane’s startling dishonesty is on full display here. He knows perfectly well that the government claims of low civilian casualties depend upon it assuming that any unidentified adult male is a “terrorist”. He knows perfectly well that the figure of “three” civilians merely refers to those who were known civilians. He knows perfectly well that this does not imply that the other 149 were therefore combatants. In making this claim, Shane has effectively adopted the same standard as the U.S. government of assuming that every individual killed in drone attacks must be guilty of being a “terrorist” unless otherwise proven innocent. Indeed, his “Moral Case for Drones”, when you boil it down, rests entirely upon this assumption.

Take the bureau’s data on strikes in Pakistan for this year, for example, and employ the more reasonable assumption that those killed should be presumed to be civilians unless proven otherwise. It reports that on January 10 up to four “alleged militants” were killed (emphasis added), only one of whom was reportedly a senior member of al-Qaeda. One for four. On January 12, as many as “nine militants” were killed, but the reporting cited by the bureau characterizes the identities of the killed men as remaining unknown. One for 13. On January 23, up to four “alleged Turkmeni militants” “possibly allied to al Qaeda” were killed (emphasis added). One for 17. On January 23, two unknown individuals were reportedly killed. One for 19. On February 8, ten “alleged militants” were killed. One for 29. On February 9, at least five were reportedly killed in a targeted assassination of Pakistan Taliban commander Badar Mansoor, including his wife and daughter. Two for 34. Another attack on February 16 “killed six alleged militants” (emphasis added). Etc., etc., etc.

It would superfluous to continue the illustration of how individuals killed are judged to have been “terrorists”, when you get right down to it, solely on the government’s claims that this was so.

To further illustrate Shane’s dishonesty, though, take a report from the bureau from just last month that the CIA was “reportedly reviving the use of highly-controversial tactics that target rescuers and funeral-goers.” On June 4, 16 people were killed in such a secondary attack. The day before, “a CIA drone strike targeted people gathered for funeral prayers of militant victims killed in an earlier attack”, killing as many as ten. The week before that, a drone strike targeted a mosque, “killing at least three civilian worshippers”. That one attack alone thus accounts for Shane’s “just three” civilians killed this year. For these other 26 people, including those guilty of trying to rescue victims or attending their funeral, Shane simply follows the U.S. government’s lead and defines them all as guilty by default of being “terrorists”.

Shane’s willingness to accept the Obama administration’s standard of counting any unidentified adult males as “terrorists” and to employ that standard in order to claim that “just three” civilians have been killed this year—as though he or anyone else knew for a fact that the other 149 were “terrorists”—is absolutely astonishing. That he could adopt this standard as the foundational premise for making the “Moral Case for Drones” is even more appalling. That such cheerleading for U.S. violence is what passes for “journalism” these days is highly instructive. The title of Scott Shane’s “analysis” notwithstanding, what it in fact presents is a highly immoral case for drones from a so-called “journalist” who has proven himself to have very little moral integrity indeed.

Correction appended: This article originally misstated the minimum percentage of innocent bystanders killed in Israeli  targeted assassinations as 54% and has been corrected. At least 149 of the 323 Palestinians killed in such attacks were not the target of attack, thus 46%, not 54%.

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Jeremy R. Hammond

Jeremy R. Hammond is an award-winning political analyst, editor and publisher of Foreign Policy Journal, and author. His new book is Obstacle to Peace: The US Role in the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict. Read the first chapter FREE at! 

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  • gregorylent

    the nyt is usa’s pravda, it really is ok to ignore it, and such articles.

  • great read. hands-down!
    you’ve not only added what was surprisingly missing from Scott’s article but have given a whole new perspective to the “Predator Drone Programme”

    My case in point. Pakistan: The Missing Link.

  • Jon Harrison

    Let me preface what I’m about to say about drones by stating that I recognize the role US policy has played and is continuing to play in fomenting anti-Americanism and terrorism. I wish the United States had never gotten involved in the Middle East and Central Asia to begin with. In my ideal world, the US is not involved in these regions and has a relationship with Israel that is no more intimate than our relationship with, say, South Africa or Paraguay.

    We do not, however, live in that ideal world. Whatever degree of blame may accrue to us, Americans are a target for terrorists. That being so, I basically agree wth Shane’s thesis. Drones have played a big role in eviscerating al Qaeda in the tribal territories of Pakistan, and to a lesser extent in places like Yemen. While drones may have radicalized some individuals, the tradeoff has been very much to our advantage, with highy capable enemies being eliminated, while their replacements have proved to be much less competent. The dropoff in big, successful terrorist attacks like 9/11 and 7/7 and Madrid is in part attributable to the drone program. And the fact is, collateral damage is reduced with drones — not eliminated, which is impossible — but noticeably reduced. And of course our own casualties are lower as well.

    Again, I wish we weren’t involved in a War on Terror, and I recognize that we played a part in setting it off. But unfortunately the US is a target for terrorists, and therefore we are prudent to attack those who wish to strike at us. And drones are a very effective tool in that effort.

    • John, you support illegal violence. You support actions that serve to escalate the threat of terrorism. You support the US setting a dangerous precedent that risks future destabilization and human rights abuses as other nations follow this example. You support a policy that results in innocent civilians being killed. How can you possibly defend this immoral position?

      • Jon Harrison

        I explained my reasons in my comment, Jeremy. I don’t agree that the drone campaign is “illegal”. I don’t agree that it “sets a dangerous precedent that risks future destabilization and human rights abuses”. I realize that innocent civilians get killed by drones, but I know that ground action and airstrikes carried out by manned aircraft have led to even greater civilian losses.

        Unfortunately we have to deal with the world as it is, and not as we would like it to be. It’s very unfortunate that we had a hand in creating al Qaeda and motivating it to carry out its campaign against America and Americans. But the fact remains that we have to hit them before they hit us; that’s the reality of the situation. Given that unfortunate reality, the drone program is an effective way of striking at al Qaeda, as events have shown. If there were another way of getting al Qaeda to stand down and cease its attacks on us, I’d be in favor. You may say that if the US would just get out of Central Asia and the Middle East, al Qaeda would stand down. Even if this were true, there’s no possibility of the US withdrawing at this time. Therefore we face the choice of hitting them, or letting them hit us. I prefer the former. Civilian casualties are always unfortunate, but they will always occur in war. The Russians before us killed far more civilians in Afghanistan than US forces have. Al Qaeda itself has slaughtered civilians — including Muslims — without compunction. So I see no real alternative to using drones against terrorists, in order to prevent them carrying out attacks like East Africa, New York, Bali, Madrid, and London.

        Again, I don’t acccept your legal interpretation of the drone campaign, nor do I believe that it seriously threatens to destabilize anything other than al Qaeda’s command and control infrastructure.

        • Jon, you didn’t explain your reasons, and you still haven’t. How are drone strikes not illegal? How do they not serve escalate the threat of terrorism and violence? How does their use not set a dangerous precedent? How can you defend the killing of innocent civilians? “Unfortunately we have to deal with the world as it is, and not as we would like it to be” does not explain your position, and neither does any of this other rhetoric.

          If the U.S. was serious about stopping terrorism, it would stop committing it. If you were serious about stopping terrorism, you wouldn’t support acts of state terrorism that murders innocent civilians.

          • Jon Harrison

            I’m sorry, Jeremy, but I did give my reasons for supporting drone warfare. I’d like you to explain to me how the drone program is illegal; it’s cerrtainly not illegal under US law. Has the drone program led to indictments by an internationally recognized legal tribunal?

            It’s not a question of “defending” the killing of civlians. Civilian deaths occur in war; it’s unfortunate but it’s a fact. US forces do more to prevent civilian casualties than any other major military power. That doesn’t mean that there aren’t
            excesses committed by the US military, and these should be vigorously prosecuted. But war will entail civilian casualties; that’s the reality. It’s unfortunate but true. We can only do our best to minimize civilian deaths. I’m not a pacifist; I wouldn’t turn the other cheek to al Qaeda.

            As I stated, the US is itself partly to blame for the fact that it has become a terrorist target. That doesn’t stop me from supporting efforts to kill people like Bin Laden. I’m sorry if that offends you, but I’m not going to lie to make you feel better.

          • Jon, please read the article. Then we’ll discuss it.

  • a free bird

    {Unfortunately we have to deal with the world as it is, and not as we would like it to be. It’s very unfortunate that we had a hand in creating al Qaeda and motivating it to carry out its campaign against America and Americans.}

    I am surprised there are people who think there is still ‘al Qaeda’ to be wiped off the map by the United States. Let me tell you, only dumb and ignorant people believe this lie.
    These ignorant people deserve to be shouted at and tell them you have been fooled, fooled, fooled and fooled because THERE IS NO AL QAEDA who works against the interest of the US in the world, rather they are terrorists who are trained and financially supported by the US/Israel and Western powers to be used against the targeted countries in the region to destabilize these countries for ciaos and regime change so they can partition these countries according to Western/Israel interest and bring their natural and human resources under control.

    They are implementing the same recipe as they used elsewhere including conquest of Americas by killing millions of indigenous people in order to steal their lands and their wealth. The same recipe is applied in Palestine.
    The US government has chosen to call its terrorist group Al Qaeda, not the way around, because they are terrorist pawns who are under the control of US with your Tax $$$$$$$. PEJAK, Jundullah, and Mujahedin (MEK) where American politicians are trying to un-list MEK from the state department terrorist list on US/Israel’s behalf to be used in killing Iranians, like what they have done in Libya, Syria, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Somalia, Sudan and elsewhere, all are under control of the United States/Israel.

    When are you going to wake up?
    Ben Laden was controlled by the US to the end. Everyone knows these facts except the ignorant people who never will learn.
    The massacre of innocent people by DRONE at the wedding party, schools , homes and elsewhere in the faraway lands without doubts is CRIMES AGAINST HUMANITY and should be punished. Where is Mr. Richard Falk?

    Richard Falk is better to expose the empire’s ‘lawyer’, Payam Akhavan, rather to work with him. Why these ‘lawyers’ do not prosecute crimes against humanity of rich countries , United States, Canada, Britain, Israel, France, and others? And go after the victims of these countries? Shame on them.
    For those people who do not wish to be called dumb, please read the following:

  • Jon Harrison

    Having encountered “a free bird’s” effusions in the past, I’ll confine myself to saying that I just can’t take them seriously.

  • Jon Harrison

    @Jeremy — I did read the article, and I don’t appreciate your dimissiveness, implying that I either didn’t read it or just can’t understand your reasoning.

    There’s nothing you bring forward that shows that the drone program is illegal under US or international law. Shane rightly points out that the issue is “contentious”. I hate to burst your bubble, but your interpretation of how Article 2 applies in this case is just that: your interpretation. When your views are recognized by reputable international bodies as authoritative, then perhaps we’ll all stand up and salute. Until then it’s just Jeremy asserting that his interpretation of international law is the correct one.

    I found it odd that you brought Operation Cast Lead into a discussion of the US drone program. An attempt to use a hot-button emotional issue to bolster your case? The problem, of course, is that Cast Lead has nothing to do with US drone operations.

    I was also struck by your assertion that Shane exhibits “transparent dishonesty”. “He knows perfectly well . . .” blah, blah. I didn’t know that you can read minds. Let’s assume for a moment that you’re right on the facts concerning this aspect of Shane’s piece. Why don’t you allow for the possibility that he was mistaken or misled? Why assume dishonesty on his part? It’s your site and you can do what you want, but this combination of “what I assert is true, while what he says is transparently a lie” is the sort of tactic used by people whose arguments and reasoning are based on personal predispositions rather than a dispassionate examination of evidence. And the ad hominem attacks (see your last paragraph) on the author whose piece you’re attacking only reinforces the impression that you’re overreaching and relying on invective to bolster your case.

    • You don’t appreciate my dismissiveness? What a hypocritical comment, considering the fact that you just said “I’d like you to explain to me how the drone program is illegal” when I had already done so in the article, and which simple explanation you must either not have read or simply dismissed at the time you made that comment.

      I fail to see how Article 2 is open to interpretation. Please, by all means, explain to us your own differing interpretation of it and in what way you think what I said about it is somehow in error. Please enlighten us.

      I didn’t argue that Cast Lead had anything to do with US drone operations. I was illustrating how Shane underreported the actual ratio of civilians killed in Israeli targeted assassinations to emphasize the point that comparing ourselves to Israel is by no means an honest measure by which to judge our own actions “moral”. That is a perfectly unambiguous point in the article.

      Shane’s dishonesty is transparent, as illustrated in the article. Where did I ever claim to read his mind? You know for a fact that Shane knows that the government counts any adult male as a “terrorist” unless they are posthumously proven innocent. And you know that Shane in this article actually accepts and adopts that same standard in this article while attempting to appear objective. How is that not transparent dishonesty?

      You are being willfully ignorant, Jon.

    • I’m still waiting, Jon.

  • As someone from one of those poor benighted lands where people exist only to serve the Evil Empire (yes, I called the United States an Empire and I categorised it as evil. Don’t like it? Too bad), I can only say that drones, far from being an “effective tool”, only fills us with hatred and contempt for you. Your Empire isn’t just murderous and brutal – it’s cowardly and mendacious. If 11/9 filled the world with horror, the next bit of blowback will fill us with satisfaction. You will have earned it all. In spades.

  • Edward

    I have always found it strange that some people see nothing wrong with entering their neighbous house and killing the inhabitants.
    Is it because they can get away with it ………. for a time anyway?

  • Matt T.

    I won’t address the legality or morality (two concepts not inextricably linked as you suggest) of drones in this comment, but I think you misunderstand the purpose of the NYT article. The author simply argued that some analysts believe there is moral justification for drones. If it seems that he is undercutting or not adequately defending his own argument, it is only because that’s not HIS argument. He seems as shocked as anyone else that someone could suggest drones or moral. In other words, I think your anger is clouding your understanding.

    • I addressed his attribution of the “Moral Case for Drones” to others in the article. Did you miss that part?

  • Dee

    Jeremy, Jon ate you for lunch. War is war – there are no rules, no laws, just fighting to the death or until one side surrenders – that is what war is. You fight to win at all costs, and if a few civilians get killed, that is just a fact of war. The UN and the Geneva Convention are just a poor attempt by a bunch of cheesy diplomats to mitigate some of the atrocities of war. If I was a Commander-in-Chief of a military force and fighting a war, I certainly would not fight by someone else’s rules. Apparently you have not read the Art of War – maybe you should.

    • Well, if you accept as axiomatic that there is no such thing as international law, or that it is somehow “moral” to just ignore the law that does exist, then, yes, obviously, it would follow that Jon “ate me for lunch”. I reject your premise, however, and do not regard either of these as truisms.

      I have read Sun Tzu, actually. But that’s neither here nor there.

  • Rusty S.

    Jeremy, you’re far more effective in writing articles than in replying to others. My advice is to stick to the former, or drastically improve your tone. In your replies to Jon H., you come across as a complete jacka**. That’s my advice, if you honestly want to achieve change.

    That said, I did appreciate the article very much.

    After 9/11, virtually all Americans sit idly by, while we kill, imprison and even torture innocents. It’s shocking and shameful how we’ve conducted ourselves. Obama campaigned on these sorts of issues, yet has delayed closing Gitmo! Known innocents remain shackled. (Not that I’m gung-ho for Romney…)

    • Rusty, if you think I erred on any point of fact or logic in my comments, you are welcome to point them out. As for who is a jackass, I’m not the one defending murder or calling others a jackass. But if you think I’ve been such to Jon, and you really wish to help me be more effective, please explain to me in what way you think this is so. Thanks.

  • Danny

    Jeremy, I agree with Rusty that your replies could be much better – rather than address the issues raised by Jon, it seems as though your intent is to discredit his points by attacking him.

    It is clear from reading your work that my political views are very different from yours, and there is no point in having that battle here. With that said, I still don’t believe that you’ve made a good case for why drone strikes are immoral.

    If you ascribe to the view that a country has the right to pursue those who seek it harm, then it would most certainly be the moral course of action to choose a means of pursuit that causes the least possible number of casualties. You have not provided evidence to refute Scott Shane’s point that drone strikes cause less casualties than the other forms of available force.

    Your main contention appears to be with US action in general and not with drone strikes in particular. By doing this you miss the opportunity to engage in the actual moral discussion of drones as an instrument of war – something that the title of your article implies you will do.

    • Danny, I didn’t “attack” anyone. I pointed out the errors in Jon’s thinking. You think drone strikes are somehow moral. On what point of fact or logic do you think I have erred? You have not addressed a single point I argued in the article. What is your case? How can you justify the murder of innocent civilians? The strikes are illegal. They escalate the threat of violence and terrorism. They set a dangerous precedent. They murder innocent civilians. Your argument that some other means could kill even more innocent civilians is a non sequitur. It certainly does not follow that therefore it is okay to murder innocent civilians with drones. Apart from being a logical fallacy, it is just one more immoral argument, and one that I already happened to address in the article. I see no evidence in your comments that you actually read it.

      • Danny

        Wow, where to start…

        Firstly: I never passed moral judgment on drone strikes in my response. I merely said that you never provided an adequate response to refute Scott Shane’s point that they cause less casualties.

        Secondly: you need to stop accusing people of not having read your article. Of course we have, otherwise we wouldn’t be responding. You can either disagree with our points, as we have with yours, or you can seek to clarify.

        Thirdly: as I stated in my initial response, it is your view that the US has no right to action in this area, and therefore its drone strikes are illegal. Many would argue that the US has faced armed aggression, and that it is pursuing those who have acted as aggressors. If you accept the latter point, then the US has casus belli under the UN charter – though there are debates about the applicability of the charter to non-state actors – and the drone strikes are in fact legal.

        Fourthly: I, nor any of the other respondents to your article, suggest that killing innocent civilians is somehow OK. However, if war occurs (as it inevitably does) it is necessary to have moral discussions on what actions are permissible. To say that my point (around actions to minimize civilian casualties) is a non sequitur is to say that we can have no moral discussion about the use of force in war.

        Lastly: Your response, much like the original piece, makes it clear that you are more interested in discussing the morality of the war on terror, then the morality of drone strikes as an instrument of war.

        • 1) You “never passed moral judgment on drone strikes in my response”? In fact, you said “I still don’t believe that you’ve made a good case for why drone strikes are immoral.” It seems reasonable to conclude from that statement that you disagree that they are immoral and, as a further corollary, that therefore you must think they are somehow moral. This conclusion seems further evidenced by your repeating an argument Shane presents in the article for the “Moral Case for Drones” (which I addressed in the article, and which counterargument of mine you failed to address in your comment, instead merely repeating the fallacy; see #4 below). So if you agree with me that they are immoral, just say so.

          2) When you say I have not made “a good case for why drone strikes are immoral” without actually addressing any of the points I made for why they are, what am I to think but that you might not have actually read it, or not carefully so?

          3) I stated why drones strikes are illegal in the article. You haven’t addressed that argument, but are presenting a strawman argument instead. I did not present the argument you say I did. I didn’t need to. How can you (or anyone) possibly interpret the U.N. Charter as offering a legal basis for drone strikes? What article of the Charter do you base this conclusion on? I showed you precisely why the strikes are a violation of international law under the Charter, and you haven’t addressed that point. What error in fact or logic do you see on my part in the argument I present in the article? You have presented none.

          4) You say, “I, nor any of the other respondents to your article, suggest that killing innocent civilians is somehow OK.” That is false. When you or others argue that drone strikes are “moral”, that is precisely what you are suggesting, that the killing of innocent civilians is somehow OK. You say, “To say that my point (around actions to minimize civilian casualties) is a non sequitur is to say that we can have no moral discussion about the use of force in war.” No. To say your point is a non sequitur is simply to say it is a logical fallacy. It does not follow that since one form of violence kills fewer civilians than another form of violence, that therefore it is a “moral” use of violence. This should be patently obvious to any rational person. Do I need to provide an illustration to you for you to be able to see the fallacy?

          5) We could discuss the morality of the so-called “war on terror” if you like; but the specific topic here is the morality–or rather the lack thereof–of US drone strikes as a tool of that war.

          • Danny

            This is getting a bit silly now. When I say that you did not make a good case that drone strikes are immoral, that does not mean that I think they are moral. It means that I don’t think you constructed a good argument.

            I have given you a clear counter argument for why US action in the war on terror could be legal. You have chosen to dismiss this as a ‘strawman’ without addressing the merits of that point of view.

            The question that needs to be answered is do you believe in just war? If not, then your contention is not with drone strikes in particular but with war in general.

            If so, then please explain to me how it is a logical fallacy to say that methods of war which limit civilian causalities are more moral than those that don’t?

          • Do you think drone strikes are moral or immoral, Danny?

            Let’s get on the same page here.

  • Mike

    1) You say that under the UN Charter, there are only two circumstances under which the use of force is legitimate (i.e., not illegal): One, when the use of force is in self-defense against armed aggression…

    If the attacks against the USS Cole, the US embassies in Kenya and Tanzania, and the 9/11 terrorism are not aggression, then I don’t know what is. Hence the use of force in reply is legal and the use of drones against the authors and auxiliaries of such attacks is not incontrovertibly illegal which you claim would exclude any argument for it being moral.

    Do you maintain that the failed missile attack on bin Laden after the embassy bombings in 1998 was illegal, and if it had been successful would still have been illegal and immoral even though it might well have prevented 9/11, a further act of aggression?

    2) Likewise on Israel: do you maintain that any Israeli action against Gaza, including targetted killings, is illegal even in response to continued rocket attacks against Israel and thus not permissible under the UN charter?

    3) Could you please explain your maths on the targetted killings in Gaza. You say: ‘All told, 323 Palestinians have been killed in targeted assassinations by Israel, only 174 of whom were actually the target of attack. Thus, over half, 54%, of those killed in such attacks, at a minimum (even allowing the dubious assumption that all of those actually targeted could be fairly considered “combatants”) were innocent bystanders—not 41%, as Shane asserts.’

    According to my calculations, 174 is 53.86996% of 323, so how does that add up to 54% innocent bystanders, unless of course you have a new percentage standard measuring everything out of 108 instead of 100?

    • Acts of terrorism are the crime of “terrorism”, not armed aggression. There is nothing in international law that legitimizes your view. Let’s not get into tangents; Pakistan hasn’t committed armed aggression against the U.S. Bombing Pakistan is a violation of their sovereignty. It is a violation of Article 2 of the U.N. Charter, which states that “All Members shall refrain in their international relations from the threat or use of force against the territorial integrity or political independence of any state, or in any other manner inconsistent with the Purposes of the United Nations.”

      You are correct, I made an error regarding those numbers. The correct number is 46%, and I’ve corrected the article and made a note of the error. Thank you for pointing that out. The point remains the same.

      • Mike

        That’s a legalistic cop out. Use of force against armed aggression is permissible. The UN charter did not consider acts of terrorism at the time, but terrorism is a form of armed aggression. You might argue that it is armed defence, but in that case we’ve already passed over into a war situation. If a country uses, encourages, condones or willfully fails to stop terrorism from its territory, it is as much an act of aggression by that country as firing off its rockets or marching across the border.

        • No, Mike, you are wrong. Armed aggression under international law refers to the use of military force by one state against another. This is the crime of aggression, “the supreme international crime”. What I said is not “a legalistic cop out”, it’s the truth. Pakistan hasn’t committed armed aggression against the U.S. Bombing Pakistan is a violation of their sovereignty. It is a violation of Article 2 of the U.N. Charter, which states that “All Members shall refrain in their international relations from the threat or use of force against the territorial integrity or political independence of any state, or in any other manner inconsistent with the Purposes of the United Nations.”

          • Mike

            Yes, it is a legalistic cop-out by you because the UN did not consider organised international terrorism based on the territory of a sovereign state when it drew up its charter over 60 years ago, for the simple reason that was not a present threat then. The continual crossing of the border from Pakistan into Afghanistan by attackers (I’m not saying terrorists to avoid getting bogged down in that argument) based on Pakistani territory constitutes armed aggression.

            After 9/11 the Security Council expressed support for the efforts of the Afghan people to replace the Taliban regime, once again condemned for allowing Afghanistan to be used as a base for the export of terrorism and for providing safe haven to Osama bin Laden – a safe haven later provided by Pakistan. This surely updates the charter.

            UN security council resolution 1368 of September 12, 200l, explicitly says it is determined to combat by all means threats to international peace and security caused by terrorist acts, and it
            recognises the inherent right of individual or collective self-defence in accordance with the Charter. Responding to cross-border attacks from Pakistan is encompassed by the ‘all means’ and ‘self-defence.’

            Moreover, resolution 1377 of November 12, 2001 underlines the obligation on States to deny financial and all other forms of support and safe haven to terrorists and those supporting terrorism. Ask pakistan about that one.

          • Mike, you have a very poor understanding of law. It’s not clear to me what it is you think “updates the charter”, but it doesn’t really matter. The Charter is what it is, and attacks on Pakistan clearly violate Article 2.

            UNSCR 1368 does not authorize any use of force. On the contrary, if you read it you will note that it reaffirms what I said, that “terrorism” is considered under international law to be a crime to be dealt with by law enforcement. This is why that resolution “Calls on all States to work together urgently to bring to justice the perpetrators, organizers and sponsors of these terrorist attacks and stresses that those responsible for aiding, supporting or harbouring the perpetrators, organizers and sponsors of these acts will be held accountable”.

            UNSCR 1377 is also in that context, and also did not authorize any use of force.

  • a free bird


    Jon Harrison is a troll from the MILITARY. They are from US Central Command – CENTCOM who go to different sites to defend US crimes at the time of ‘war’. In fact i the US that is waging war on others. The ‘war on terror’ is fraud. No one has waged war on the United States.

    These trolls write in a ‘polite’ manner. In the beginning, They usually say they are ‘sorry’ for lostof lives of innocent people who are killed as a result of US actions in the faraway places, but they argue these actions are necessary to root out the ‘terrorists’. They say US is going extra mile not to kill civilians, but sometimes has no control.
    They are not interested in your arguement, since they want to create confusion for those who have less knowledge. CENTCOM argues that they want to ‘root out radical opinions’ to have a ‘peaceful’ world.

    They usually copy from the written pieces ready to go, and you will see the repetition in their comments.
    They defend the crimes committed by the US government and its stooges. They ‘argue’ these actions are necessary to root out the ‘terrorists’. They say US is defending itself at the time of ‘war’, which is a LIE.
    The US government is waging war on sovereign nations for regime change to control their resources and their markets. In fact, the real terrorists, including Al Qaeda are US controlled terrorist groups who are used in the destabilization project by killing the civilians.
    They implement their policy through false flag. If you read Jon’s comments you will notice the repetitious parts. The reason is that they have no knowledge of the issues and will stuck in the same damned argument they are making to go around the circle, to defend US crimes against humanity.

    In other web sites with different languages, they follow the same rule.

    • It’s your comment, actually, free bird, which I consider trolling. Let’s keep fantastical personal attacks out of the discussion.