Imagine what it’s like for the victim. Imagine a 28-year-old American-born man living in Yemen. It’s early evening, and he’s about to leave for a family outing. He ushers his wife and kids into the car and pulls onto the street. In an instant, a high-pitched whine shrieks down from the sky. He, his wife, his two sons and his daughter are blown up, wiped off the face of the earth by a U.S. drone remotely controlled from thousands of miles away.
Imagine that he was an Al Qaeda leader, but that he grew up in Boston and got swept up in a fundamentalist Islamist movement during university in London.
Suppose that CIA agents recently discovered that the subject was directing a group that planned to bomb New York City subways. His wife and children knew nothing about his work or his plans or his political affiliations. What was their crime?
By some estimates, 3,000 suspected terrorists have been killed by drone attacks in Pakistan, Somalia and Yemen since 2008. Our imaginary American-Yemeni man was one of them.
Suddenly, in recent weeks, the ethical, legal and moral issues surrounding drone strikes have been making headlines. Only recently have we heard demands for some kind of oversight group to review the list of potential targets. Only now, after years of targeted killings sanctioned by the executive branch, are some people questioning the legality of such attacks.
We haven’t talked about drones because we haven’t had to think about them. President Obama started taking out people on our enemy hit list shortly after assuming office in 2008. Since then, thousands have been killed, many who were terrorists poised to strike and some who were collateral damage, people caught in the crossfire.
Drones haven’t been featured in public discourse because they facilitate a kind of clean killing. No soldiers are on the ground, no Americans get hurt in the process, the victim can be hit from great distance, so the individual controlling the drone and the kill can be sitting in a situation room in the U.S.
It isn’t my kid in the Army; it isn’t yours. Why send soldiers on missions like the killing of Osama bin Laden when a drone can do the work with no risk to American fighting men and women?