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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”.
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%.