We Asked, You Answered: The Drone Debate

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In this Jan. 31, 2010 photo, an unmanned US Predator drone flies over Kandahar Air Field, southern Afghanistan, on a moonlit night. (AP/Kirsty Wigglesworth)

On our show last week, Bill Moyers asked viewers to weigh in on the use of unmanned spy planes in our segment America’s War on Drones. He asked: What would you say to President Obama about balancing our national security concerns against the killing of innocent civilians?

We received over 1,500 responses on our website and Facebook. The majority of people said drones should not be used to attack suspected terrorists, while some said they believed drone strikes are a necessary tool to prevent future attacks on the US. A number of people basically said, “it’s complicated,” finding it difficult to make a choice one way or the other. Here’s a summary of what you wrote.

Civilian Casualties

Many said drone strikes should not used because they lead to the deaths of innocent civilians. Patrick Wallace wrote: “Aggression, state terror and assassination are poor weapons against groups who rely upon state terror as a recruitment tool. Aside from being indifferent to the war crimes committed via drone tech, the US military and intelligence leadership, by using drones both to oversee sovereign nations and to murder civilians, is also providing a very clear symbol of totalitarianism to potential allies and enemies alike. There is no balance between national security and killing innocent civilians. Murder is never an ethical option.”

Others felt that despite the tragic loss of civilian life, drone strikes were necessary in the war on terror. Michael Edward Sink said: “Killing Al Qaeda is not an unreasonable goal. The collateral damage done is saddening but 9/11 was all about collateral damage. If the intelligence is good, strike. There was collateral damage when bin Laden was taken down. It can’t be avoided in this kind of conflict.”

Fueling Terrorism

A number of people see drone attacks as acts of terrorism and say their use actually creates more terrorists. One person, Govt12, had this to say to the president: “We are putting innocent people at risk all over the world. If that isn’t terrorism, what is? Mr. Obama, can you even imagine what it feels like to live in a country over which a foreign drone can fly and decide to kill you at will? Wouldn’t that very threat make you an enemy of the country that did so? True world leadership would entail condemning drones altogether and proposing international sanctions against their use by any country, anywhere.”

Others agreed with 16-year-old Pakistani activist Malala Yousafzai, who was shot in the head last year by the Taliban for speaking out in support of education for girls. She told President Obama in a meeting last month that America should stop using drones because they “are fueling terrorism. Innocent victims are killed in these acts and they lead to resentment among the Pakistani people.”

Against Democracy

A number of people believe that drone strikes are not only morally unjust, but also against America’s founding principles. Alan Patterson said: “In recent days, the US announced that a drone strike killed Hakimullah Mehsud, the Taliban leader in Pakistan. Was Mehsud brought to justice? No. He was summarily executed. There was no due process involved. Such an act is a violation of the human rights principles that the US is supposed to represent. You might say the US had the right to kill a Taliban leader because the US is at war. But the US has not declared war on the Taliban and therefore has no right to kill its people without justification. Furthermore, the US is violating the sovereignty of Pakistan and other nations where it is conducting drone wars. Such unilateral actions will undermine US foreign relations … It is clear that the drone wars must end.” As Joanne Herrmann put it: “Drones violate national sovereignty of countries that have never attacked or harmed us in any way. They also are a way for the executive branch to usurp the powers of the judicial and legislative branches of our government, giving way too much power to the president.”

Right to Defend Ourselves

Some people blame Pakistan, where the majority of US drones strikes occur, for not doing enough to root out terrorism. One, named Patrick, said: “It is up to the individual countries who allow these terrorists to use their soil as their bases of operations to fight them, with the help of willing partners. To fail to do so is to align themselves with the terrorists. This is the position Pakistan is in. If it really wants the US to stop using drones on its soil, then it needs to join with the US in rooting out and destroying the Taliban. If they don’t want innocent civilians killed by drones, then they need to declare war on the terrorists on their soil and drive them out. To do nothing is to give them a safe place to train and carry on their worldwide operations. As in any war, civilians are going to get killed, but the responsibility lies with Pakistan … We have the right to defend ourselves.”

“If the US created the Taliban in Pakistan, it better be the one to get rid of them.”
Another, Fatima Toor, a Pakistani, supports drone attacks because the Taliban are killing Pakistani soldiers and innocent civilians with IEDs. “Even after [Hakimullah] Mehsud’s killing they have vowed more suicide bombers… Pakistan is in a full-on war with the Taliban therefore I think drones are an effective war strategy. In my opinion if the US created the Taliban in Pakistan, it better be the one to get rid of them. The Taliban do not respect the Pakistani constitution, they want to eliminate it and enforce Sharia law, to me that is much worse for the Pakistani sovereignty than the drones.”

Tables Turned

Others said drone strikes create a bad precedent and could lead to similar strikes in America. A viewer named Leinanij wrote: “We may save a few lives when we use high-tech weapons to kill our enemies, but then we are just asking for other countries to treat us the same. Can no one look ahead and see the launching of drones into our cities? When our enemies kill more than our military, will we cry and scream that the killing of innocents is not acceptable collateral damage in war?” Robert Quinn added: “If any other nation were employing such nondiscriminatory weapons Americans would be appropriately outraged. We do it and it’s justified?”

And another viewer observed that drone strikes are a tool that Americans would never consider using at home. “Let’s suppose we had a drone to capture Timothy McVeigh, would it have made sense to drop a bomb on his entire neighborhood to get him? That’s not something we tolerate here… why is it acceptable for us to go [to] such expensive and inhumane means in other countries?”

Calls for Transparency

Charlotte Solarz said greater transparency and accountability is needed in an open debate on drones. “We need as citizens to hear and see a serious open-aired questioning over drones and their questioned effectiveness. President Obama should be candid about the numbers of civilian casualties … we need to apologize and show good will by taking counter measures toward reconciliation. The use of drones is a great shame for America and we certainly are creating more distrust and fear and daily getting farther from peace.”

Another said: “It is not at all clear what either the moral or legal justifications are in some of the reported cases involving civilians. Some of the assessments of threat or danger are hard to believe. I would ask that this program be suspended indefinitely and the legal framework and decision-making process be fully reviewed in as transparent a manner as possible.” A viewer named Fair’s Fair added: “The Machiavellian approach might be, if drones succeed in achieving legitimate military objectives without actual declared war, perhaps they’re worth considering — judiciously. But we aren’t judicious with them. And we do not report the true cost in innocent lives.”

Books, Not Bombs

“I do not know with certainty if we should or should not use drones. Maybe we should work harder to avoid war.”
Several viewers agree with Malala Yousafzai that money spent on the drone program could be better spent elsewhere, for example on education. Patrick C. Tempel said: “War, from my experience is awful. We need a complete paradigm shift away from it. First alleviate the animosity through education, food, medical care and a fair share in resource extraction. There will always be ‘bad guys’ — use police methods, intelligence and community development against them. War is also a lot more expensive than its prevention.” T1dude added: “The United States spends $4 billion a year on drones. We’d win far more hearts and minds by spending $4 billion on humanitarian aid, education and infrastructure. But it’s a long term strategy, which is unfortunately something Americans don’t seem to be good at.”

Avoid War

Many people said there is a third way in this debate: to avoid war all together. Never a Bride put it most succinctly: “I do not know with certainty if we should or should not use drones. Maybe we should work harder to avoid war.”

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