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Drone Assassinations Hurt the U.S. More Than They Help Us

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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Predator drone firing missile A lot of my liberal friends are bitterly disappointed with President Barack Obama’s performance in the past three years. They complain that via action and inaction, he is perpetuating many of the policies of his predecessor. In one key area related to military policy, equating Obama to President George W. Bush is unfair—to Bush. Obama has proved to be far more willing than Bush to launch drone attacks in countries with which we are not at war. Just last week, a CIA-directed drone attack killed two jihadists who happened to be American citizens—Anwar al-Awlaki and Samir Khan—in Yemen. Obama hailed the killing as “a major blow to al Qaeda’s most active operational affiliate.”

The U.S. military has deployed more than 7,000 unmanned airborne vehicles, or drones, security analyst P.W. Singer of the Brookings Institution reported in Scientific American last year. Drones such as the Predator, originally designed for reconnaissance, are increasingly used to kill as well as spy on targets. The Obama administration has carried out far more drone attacks than the Bush administration. The number of U.S. attacks in Pakistan alone in 2010 was 117, more than all such attacks in previous years combined, according to a report by Eric Schmitt in The New York Times last April.

A 2009 Brookings Institution report estimated that U.S. drone attacks in Pakistan had killed 10 civilians on average for every militant. The security analyst Daniel Bynam noted that “civilian deaths create dangerous political problems. Pakistan’s new democratic government is already unpopular for its corruption, favoritism, and poor governance. U.S. strikes that take a civilian toll are a further blow to its legitimacy—and to U.S. efforts to build goodwill there.” Drones are “a double-edged sword,” former CIA official Bruce Riedel told USA Today. “It really doesn’t matter how clean the strikes are,” Riedel explained. “It is very hard for us to persuade Yemenis or Pakistanis that only bad guys get killed.”

A 2010 United Nations report by Philip Alston, the U.N. special representative on extrajudicial executions, warned that drone attacks are “doing grave damage to the rules designed to protect the right to life and prevent extrajudicial executions.” Alston added: “It is an essential requirement of international law that States using targeted killings demonstrate that they are complying with the various rules governing their use in situations of armed conflict. The greatest challenge to this principle today comes from the program operated by the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency…The international community does not know when and where the CIA is authorized to kill, the criteria for individuals who may be killed, how it ensures killings are legal, and what follow-up there is when civilians are illegally killed.”

Administration officials, needless to say, have rejected these moral and legal concerns. Just last month, The Washington Post reported that the U.S. “has significantly increased the frequency of drone strikes and other air attacks against the al Qaeda affiliate in Yemen in recent months amid rising concern about political collapse there.” The Post quoted White House counterterrorism advisor John Brennan declaring that the administration “does not view our authority to use military force against al Qaeda as being restricted solely to ‘hot’ battlefields like Afghanistan.” Brennan added, “We reserve the right to take unilateral action if or when other governments are unwilling or unable to take the necessary actions themselves.”

In my previous post, I argued that any benefit Americans gain by executing convicts is outweighed by the damage we do to our reputations as morally upright people. The same argument applies with even more force to remote-controlled assassinations of suspected enemies—whether or not they are American citizens—who do not even get the benefit of a trial. Our actions have practical as well as moral consequences. The Obama administration’s enthusiasm for lethal drones may accelerate a global arms race that comes back to haunt Americans. In Wired for War (Penguin Press, 2009), Singer, the Brookings analyst, estimated that at least 43 nations as well as groups such as Hezbollah have deployed or are developing drones and other robotic weapons. We would be outraged if others attacked us with these weapons. But how can we expect others to adhere to the rules of law—and of common decency—when we don’t?

Image: Photograph of Predator firing missile courtesy Wikimedia Commons

John Horgan About the Author: Every week, hockey-playing science writer John Horgan takes a puckish, provocative look at breaking science. A teacher at Stevens Institute of Technology, Horgan is the author of four books, including The End of Science (Addison Wesley, 1996) and The End of War (McSweeney's, 2012). Follow on Twitter @Horganism.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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  1. 1. mbarminski 7:02 pm 10/3/2011

    this article is a representation of exactly why I canceled my subscription to SA and will probably never renew it. the mag has been hijacked by a bunch of non-scientific journalists. if I want opinion or political commentary I know where to go. SA at one time was rightly regarded as an important science sounding board, but now it is just another policy echo-chamber.

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  2. 2. Ducky72 7:43 pm 10/3/2011

    I agree 100% with comment #1. If I want this kind of uber liberal drivel I’ll go the the New York Times. This has nothing to do with Science.

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  3. 3. davidhill222 7:52 pm 10/3/2011

    Indeed! I also agree with mbarminski. Scientific American is no longer “scientific”. By the way, I no longer recommend this website to my students because some blogs lately have sounded like e-porn in the way they depict certain sexual behaviors. I am no prude and no right-minded political fundamentalist, but SCIAM was supposed to be about science…

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  4. 4. Ronbo 8:08 pm 10/3/2011

    Who knew right-wingers even could get on the web, let alone read scientific articles? I don’t think their 2 cents really will make any change. Next they will be calling Climate Change statistics “political attacks” against the mythic “job creators”. We haven’t seen job creators for about a decade (unless you count those in China)

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  5. 5. priddseren 9:17 pm 10/3/2011

    Yet another pointless and ridiculous article in SA. First, we are at war with any nation that harbors terrorists or sympathizes with their position. The UN needs to stop providing legitimacy to so called nations where 14 year old girls are whipped to death for the crime of being raped and every other attrocity commited against women there. Places so bad that young girls forced into marriage at 12 will kill their own baby girls to save them from the hell they are in. These places have genocided entire races, actually have slavery still in practice and actually continue to believe their God is telling them to kill anyone who disagrees with them.
    As long as those people do not advance into the 21st century, where rape and violence is actually punished and religion is not imposed by force, then those countries can expect to be attacked by US drones.
    US citizens nor anyone else are on this planet to be the targets of disfunctional and violent cultures. We have the right to life and not die because some tribal morons listen to their pathetic chief and imam tell them to go out and kill as many americans as they can. With their own mothers strapping on the bombs.

    Remember when 9-11 happened there were city wide celebrations in the middle east. When that Danish cartoonist portrayed Muhammed, there were riots in many middle east cities. The Rest of the world is in fact at war with these people because their entire cultures would enslave or kill everyone else, if given the opportunity, something they have been trying to do for 1400 years.

    So this opinion is without merit. In fact, the drones are good because they kill dangerous people who activly attempt to or succeed in killing hundreds. The drones minimze danger to american military personel.

    If you dont want to be killed by a drone, dont become a terrorist.

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  6. 6. DaveSyd 11:11 pm 10/3/2011

    Which is more terrifying, the threatening terrorist or the killing of suspects anywhere on earth by remote control?

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  7. 7. Lou Jost 11:42 pm 10/3/2011

    What stupid comments! “If you dont want to be killed by a drone, don’t become a terrorist.” Can’t these people read? Ten innocent civilians are killed for each terrorist. According to Poster 5, it is terrible to 14 year old girls to be whipped to death for being raped but just fine for us to kill those same 14 year olds with missiles just because they happened to be standing near an alleged terrorist.

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  8. 8. Archimedes 12:12 am 10/4/2011

    Thank you for the original article with which I agree completely. These same acts are cowardly and base, in my opinion.By not following those Constitutional,ethical,International Conventions (including that of the Geneva Conventions), and the rules of war, the USA and it’s allies have demonstrated that both the means and the ends of the same are illegitimate and counter productive to producing that just peace which is the legitimate end of all armed conflicts. In Vietnam, where I served as an Infantryman with the U.S. Army, we had a saying: “What goes around comes around!” That is. If you treat people unjustly, it will come back at you. I saw the same occur on many occasions in Vietnam.The philosophical terms for the same are the categorical and hypothetical imperatives. Thus, the current economic, social, and political tragedies in the USA and other nations are, in my opinion, the result of the same injustices. These same aforementioned practices of both the Bush and Obama administrations of “the ends justifies the means” have proven counter productive and self destructive through out history. They reflect a profound lack of ethical, rational, military, strategic, legal, and political judgement that is extremely inimical to the legitimate interests of the American people and the USA.

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  9. 9. In-Tokyo 4:46 am 10/4/2011

    All the “this-article-doesn’t-belong-here” comments are pathetic and mere attempts to control the conversation.

    The original article was a piece on technology — robot drones. This piece is commentary on how we are misusing scientific advances.

    If and when people start using technology to alter DNA and make superhuman babies so they can get rich (remember 1% get 25% of income in the US) by creating super babies who are extremely intelligent and tireless (for example), then I would expect commentary on that misuse of tech as well.

    The righteousness of killing terrorist does not grant us a blank check to kill whoever gets in the way. Despite the fact it makes things tougher, it’s a valid point to consider the lives being lost.

    That people say we should not consider the lives of those who are not terrorists but just happen to get killed by drone attacks anyway — that people say we should not consider the effects of our use of technology — that people say we are justified in doing anything… well humans are animals after all and some of our speech makes that so crystal clear.

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  10. 10. Postulator 5:14 am 10/4/2011

    It’s very simple. You cannot claim to be fighting for civilization at the same time as you’re murdering people. The rest of the world looks at the US and sees double standards in the way it operates. Given that, and the clear failure of US foreign policy since September 2001, why would anyone trust US government policies to “make us all safer”?

    And for those people saying “Don’t become a terrorist and we won’t kill you” you didn’t read the story. You’re not killing terrorists, you’re creating them by killing innocent parents, brothers, sisters, children.

    Oh, and I’m writing from Australia, with despair that my own government follows the US lead.

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  11. 11. cutigers81 8:54 am 10/4/2011

    What a bunch of garbage this is. The lone statistic the author uses in his argument is two years old and is reworded to prove his point. For those that didn’t follow the link, it reads as follows:

    “Sourcing on civilian deaths is weak and the numbers are often exaggerated, but more than 600 civilians are likely to have died from the attacks. That number suggests that for every militant killed, 10 or so civilians also died.”

    So he admits that it is difficult to obtain accurate death counts and that they are often exaggerated. It also says that for every militant killed (read: not every attack), 10 civilians die. So does the family of the militant count as civilian? Guess what, if you are within bomb’s distance of a militant compound, you probably already hate the US.

    With that said, let’s get a more current calculation of the accuracy of this technology before casting judgment. I’d be willing to bet that the civilian death ratio is much lower than 1:10.

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  12. 12. TexasDeano 8:58 am 10/4/2011

    Views like this are why the majority of the country considers themselves center-right and cringe at the thought of a liberal President. But every so often the republicans abuse their power and this is what we get.

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  13. 13. lamorpa 9:39 am 10/4/2011


    If you think killing people with drones is, as you say, “uber liberal drivel”, you’ve got a lot more things to focus on improving in yourself than your reading or not reading of SA. The next time you and your house are blown up by a drone-fired missile, you can hope your carefully selected reading material can protect you.

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  14. 14. MikeB 11:11 am 10/4/2011

    I’m not exactly a raging war-monger when it comes to things like this — quite the opposite in fact — but this article is so replete with incorrect assumptions, cultural bias and loose logic that I feel compelled to say something.

    The lack of solid statistical evidence for the number of civilian casualties is one egregious omission. We also do not know how “civilian” is defined; could it be the principal target’s driver, or his communications specialist, or just the guy from the tea shop making a delivery to the terrorist den?

    The article also makes no mention of the rules of engagement covering these strikes which impose strict standards for when a strike can be authorized. Proximity to schools, markets, etc., are some of the criteria. Without this info one is led to believe that these strikes are the modern equivalent of WWII carpet bombing, and calls to mind propagandistic anecdotes of devastated orphanages.

    And most importantly the writer’s opinions rest on an underlying cultural bias that assumes the rest of the world evaluates acts of this type in the same way we do. Apparently our enemies in that part of the world do not share this view, since they are perfectly well-disposed to random terrorist bombings of buses, schools and other demonstrably NON-MILITARY targets in the furtherance of their political goals. If targeting civilians is such a counter-productive thing to do, why do they do it? Obviously they do not share the writer’s point of view, and isn’t it reasonable to assume that they know more about their fellow citizens’ feelings than we do? And there is another related aspect of this that the writer fails to take into account. Residents of communities where terrorists dwell may not be well educated or politically sophisticated, but they know who the targets are and why they are being targeted. The implicit idea in this article that non-combatants will take these drone strikes as evidence of US hostility toward the entire population is perfectly ridiculous and further evidence of the writer’s utter unfamiliarity with the cultural realities of these places, and in fact reflects a certain level of contempt for the common-sense judgement of these people.

    I’m not arguing for a willy-nilly rain of missiles on Pakistan or Somalia, but the thin argument against drone strikes provided in this article — that we are alienating entire populations otherwise well-disposed to us — is so inadequate that it can be easily disregarded. I am sure a more thoughtful and well-informed commentator can do better.

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  15. 15. In-Tokyo 6:11 pm 10/4/2011

    “So does the family of the militant count as civilian?”

    Good question. Do the families of drug dealers count as drug dealers? Should they be put in jail too? What about the families of drunk drivers?

    “Guess what, if you are within bomb’s distance of a militant compound, you probably already hate the US.”

    Nice! Ok, so drunk drivers kill more people than terrorists do. Ok so let’s lock up everyone in the bar!!!!

    Wow, it’s unbelievable how Americans do not tolerate random checks for drunk drivers because it infringes on their liberty, but seem ok to condemn anyone to death for being near a terrorist whether they know it or not.

    Look at the numbers about which kills more and think through it again.

    I believe the fundamental issue is that as Christians, many dismiss any Muslim life as somehow not as valuable. I strongly reject such a view and hold both as precious.

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  16. 16. jimdit 8:03 pm 10/4/2011

    See what happens when you make a political statement! You get dribble from both sides of aisle. Stop with the policy statements

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  17. 17. Quinn the Eskimo 9:58 pm 10/4/2011

    John Horgan, has it ever occurred to you that you may be full of fertilizer? The organic kind.

    I reject your uber-liberal anti U.S. bent. You might be happier in some utopian country — like one of the Stans.

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  18. 18. Telester 10:44 pm 10/4/2011

    If you don’t want to read material that looks at technological use with political implications, there’s a solution – don’t read it.

    If you don’t want to read a science magazine that occassionally says things that contradict your political beliefs, there is a solution – don’t read it, don’t subscribe.

    You don’t have to waste our time by yapping and crying about it. We have some interest in the uses of the products of science and technology, and aren’t afraid to to look at material that might not happen to support our beliefs and political emotions.

    Stop trying to impose your beliefs on others, and this planet will be a smarter place. This is a marketplace, if the publishers chose to publish something in that marketplace, you don’t have to stand in front of their shop crying about it. Walk to the next shop. We don’t mind, we don’t care, but your crying about it is silly and irrelevant to the arguments in the article.

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  19. 19. duglarri 2:38 am 10/5/2011

    “Pridderson” says “we are at war with any nation that harbors terrorists or sympathizes with their position”.

    Does that mean that Obama will soon hit Miami with a drone strike? There are terrorists there- not just the kind that talk big or even, if you believe the US Government, attempt to blow things up. No, these are the real thing: convicted of blowing up an airliner and of killing tourists with a bombing campaign at hotels.

    Look it up. Luis Posada Carriles. He actually admits he’s a terrorist. And lives comfortably in Miami.

    Of course the targets were Cuban, and the victims were Cuban or Italian, so it doesn’t count, does it? But the entire Cuban Olympic fencing team died on that plane- they’re just as dead as if they were those Americans the underwear bomber killed- no, wait his plot failed pathetically.

    So let’s not get too sanctimonious about Merkuh being at war with terrorists. You’re at war with one kind of terrorist: the kind that tries to kill you or your friends. The kind that kills people you don’t mind seeing killed- well, you’ll just go on harboring them and sympathizing with their position.

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  20. 20. diggypop 9:29 pm 10/6/2011

    I don’t want no more stuff that contradicts what Glenn and Rush says. Scientists should stick to disproving global warming so we don’t gotta worry about it none. Them terrorists is all atheist Muslims anyhows.

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  21. 21. zampaz 5:22 pm 10/11/2011

    I think there are two important observations to examine here (assuming the observations are correct):
    US citizens designated as “terrorists” are executed without due process of law.

    Acceptance by the American public of the suspension of due process of law for persons designated as “Enemies of the State.”

    If the assumptions are accurate, then how is it possible that the US has suspended due process of law?
    What impact will the suspension of due process of law
    have on US society?

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  22. 22. hempaz 11:23 am 12/20/2012

    Same situation when we ruled the atomic bomb roost away back in ’48…

    Technology was leaked for profit, the perpetrators were caught & executed, but the Soviets were then able to manufacture 80 megaton hydrogen bombs with the technology captured.

    Who is going to be the 1st rogue nation to ‘reverse-engineer’ the Predator drone?

    North Korea?


    And, what if size reductions and increases in stealth come to the Predator?

    Are we going to then unilaterally unleash a whole fleet of the little monsters on some unsuspecting square mile of currently untargeted sand?

    Arms races are caused by one group getting an advantage over another group that cannot be gin’d up by the latter due to the over-hanging grief of a potential unannounced strike coming from the former.

    Americans don’t like being in subservient, 2nd position, now do we?

    I think we should beef up our own defense against Predator-type attacks.

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