Tag Archives: wedding

A Real-life ‘Red Wedding’ , Drones and Ethics Pt.2

“The wars of the future will not be fought on the battlefield or at sea. They will be fought in space, or possibly on top of a very tall mountain. In either case, most of the actual fighting will be done by small robots. And as you go forth today remember always your duty is clear: To build and maintain those robots.” (The Simpsons, The Secret War of Lisa Simpson)


To start, I have immense reservations on talking about warfare. For one, I have zero experience in war and thus, no conception of what it would possibly feel like to be confronted with life or death situations. Second, I am a beneficiary of other people who have sacrificed their lives.

But I think I’ve become so fixated on this topic because, after doing research in In Part 1, I can’t help but feel that there is something being broken. Certain rules that ought to be followed, morals… sexy stuff like that.

What I’m concerned with is not whether war is justified or not. For the sake of argument I’ll assume that it is. What I’m concerned with is whether or not the use of drones or any remotely piloted machine can be morally justified. Remote controlled T-1000’s, murderous 3CPO’s and missile equipped Roomba’s would fall under this category too.

Now let’s say there are two nation’s engaged in a good ol’ fashioned war.

When two sides engage, it’s clear that one side wants to have an advantage over the enemy. The leaders of both sides have a moral obligation for to put their army in the best position possible to win. You want to create a level asymmetry in which the enemy suffers more while your own forces remain safe. It would be immoral not to minimize the risk of tragedy on your own side.

Furthermore, the fundamental thing about war is that all combatants are considered to be morally innocent, no one is assumed to be guilty. Under International Law, you are only allowed to kill these innocent people if there is a reciprocal imposition of risk. This is a fancy way of saying that a soldier is given the right to kill IF they themselves are under the threat of being killed. Without this element of self-defense, there is no moral or legal right to justify killing anyone. The problem with drones as I see it, is that it creates a level of asymmetry and unevenness so severe, it removes the reciprocity of risk needed to justify killing someone during war.

So imagine yourself as an armed soldier confronting an armed enemy who has the clear intention to kill you. You are justified in pulling the trigger because you meet that condition of reciprocal risk. Now replace yourself in that scenario with a drone. The idea I’m trying to get across is that you no longer have any moral justification to kill that enemy soldier because:

1. You are no longer an immediate threat to you and morally innocent

2. You are in no immediate danger of dying

An interesting question that comes to my mind is that if your enemy is no longer a threat to you, then what makes them an appropriate target?

Imagine that Country A sees Country B as an appropriate target to use force. If A meets B on the battlefield, then their forces are appropriate targets so long as they threaten injury.  But if Country A never physically shows up, what makes Bs’ forces justified targets?

Paul Kahn has written extensively on the topic of machine warfare and proposes that the use of drones no longer becomes a matter of warfare, but policing. The act of policing assumes that you are only targeting people who are morally guilty and that it is only these people that should suffer injury. And that’s precisely how a drone policy operates. For example, the US initiates drone strike targets on “al-Qaeda and its associated forces”, “who pose a continuing and imminent threat to the American people”. It’s this,

with a lot less marionettes.


But I guess what troubles me so much about the use of drones is this trend:

Only about a fifth of the members of US Congress who decide whether or not to authorize U.S. military action have any military experience themselves. To me this shows an incredible disconnect between the consequences of war and the decision makers who decide on whether to enter war or not. Who knows, maybe they would be emboldened to engage in more military action since they have never had to put their own lives on the line, war would be something abstract.

I see drones exacerbating this disconnect because there is no risk for the the guy that presses the button or makes the call to press the button thousands of miles away, they don’t even have to really witness it. It’s a bit unsettling to me the distancing between the suffering that is being caused and that situational feeling that might inhibit someone from causing that suffering.




A Real-life ‘Red Wedding’ , Drones and Ethics Pt.1

My my, it really has been three months since my last blog.

Over a year ago in June I came across this video that just blew my mind

How cool is that? Imagine. The sun being blocked out because the sky is littered by flying pizzas.  And most importantly, no tipping.

A few months later I quickly abandoned my love for drone-dropped pizza because of this story:


On December 20, 2013  the Associated Press reported that dozens of people on their way to a wedding in Yemen were killed and others injured, including the bride, in a US military air strike after their party was mistaken for an al-Qaeda convoy. (President Obama sends his regards).

Human Rights Watch released a report on the drone strike citing interviews with family members and survivors of the convoy stating all those hit were civilians, whereas Yemeni and US officials told Human Rights Watch that they were militants. When both authorities were asked which of the dead and wounded were members of militant groups and which were civilians, they did not reply to the question.

The purpose of this strike was to target al-Qaeda leader Shawqi Ali Ahmad al-Badan. U.S. and Yemeni officials said that although wounded, he had escaped. But hey, at least they got the other guys, and the bride.

So in this incident, there is a lot of ambiguity around who was killed and injured in these attacks. It can’t be ruled out the possibility that al-Qaeda members were killed, but neither can the possibility that those killed and wounded were innocent civilians.

In early March of 2013, President Obama laid out his drone policy to direct strikes like this one in Yemen. It is meant to be “a high threshold…for taking violence” because :

  • “we only target al-Qaeda and its associated forces”
  • “our preference is always to detain, interrogate, and prosecute”
  • “we act against terrorists who pose a continuing and imminent threat to the American people”
  • “before any strike is taken, there must be ‘near-certainty‘ that no civilians will be killed or injured”

We can see how well that has worked in practice. A review of CIA documents reveal that over a 14 month period, they did not always know who it was of the 613 people they were targeting and killing in drone strikes. US officials only labelled 1 of the 613 killed as a civilian. 1 in 4  killed by these drone strikes were labelled as “other militants”. “Other militants” is a term used when the CIA cannot determine the affiliation of those killed.

It begs to ask, if you don’t know who these people are, how could you possibly know they’re an imminent threat to national security? In what way is a wedding procession an imminent threat to the American people?

These are stupid questions to ask because apparently it doesn’t really matter anyways. Nothing ever really matters in American foreign policy. Independent sources have reported these depressing drone strike statistics between 2002-2013 in Yemen and Pakistan alone:

Yemen Pakistan
US Drone strike: 44-54Total Reported Killed: 233-333

Civilians Reported Killed: 12-45

Children Reported Killed: 2

US Drone strike: 368Total Reported Killed: 2541-3533

Civilians Reported Killed: 411-884

Children Reported Killed: 168-197

And yet, US officials are adamant that only 1 civilian has been killed. In his very own words, Obama assured that the “[The US has a] high threshold…for taking lethal action”. Straight up bull in my opinion.

Secret memos released reveal the true nature of how the Pakistani and US governments go about their drone strikes. They often participate in what is known as ‘signature strikes’. These are when drone operators fire on people whose identities they do not know based on evidence of suspicious patterns of behavior or other “signatures”. They make connections between unidentified suspects and other known terrorists and militants. So they look at the places the unknown person goes to, who they meet with, who they call and send emails to, and then match those against other people linked to the same calls, emails and meetings. Tough luck for that Pakistani who just happens to know the wrong guy, chances are he will be as good as dead.

Between 2009 and 2010, as many as half of drone strikes were classified as “signature strikes”.  In other words, half the time the executor is just  ¯\_(ツ)_/¯. It shouldn’t come as a surprise then, that as many as 197 children in Pakistan have been reportedly killed.

In my next blog I’ll be looking at where the use of drones fall in the tricky web of international law, warfare and ethics.

In the meantime, here’s a fun game:
You’re a president or prime minister and a security official comes up to you and tells you they need to execute someone. They say to you that they don’t know exactly who this person, but he might have sent an email to an al-Qaeda member and he goes to Northern Pakistan a lot. Could you in good conscience kill this person who may or may not be a terrorist?