Tuesday, February 19, 2013

Are Drones Moral?: A Catholic Perspective

When it comes to morality questions, I tend to follow my gut. If I feel a moral discomfort about something, even if I can't put words to my concern, I don't do it. Unless I have grave reasons to go against my intuition, I do not support things that make me feel uncomfortable. When I first heard about the drone program (months before the NBC leaked memo), I didn't like them. I wasn't able to say why. Just something seemed inherently unfair about sending unmanned machines in to assassinate people with "smart" bombs even if those people were sworn enemies of the US.


I know all of this is old news, but I wanted to think about it long and hard before I said anything. My specialty is medical ethics, not war. Although I did come across a very insightful article that made a connection between being anti-abortion and anti-drones. The first time I heard an argument that gave voice to my concerns however was through The Daily Show's Jon Stewart:


Now, he did get criticized by a lot of people for not being harder on her. But this did get the ball rolling in my mind about what exactly about this program bugs me. What was it? When the memo leaked, I found more voices in the media giving words to my feelings. In the following video from MSNBC's The Cycle, I find myself agreeing strongly with conservative talking head, SE Cupp.


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So, what does my Church say? First of all, my Church would applaud my tendency to follow my gut. Assuming one's conscience is formed by Tradition and Scripture (or at least one makes an earnest attempt to form it by the Church), one can always trust one's conscience.


Since this controversy has hit the fan, the USCCB has not issued a statement specifically about the drones, but they have said things about the "war on terror" in general and in 2011 they did write an open letter to our National Security Advisor saying "...we encourage the US to review the use of unmanned drones." In last year's Rosary Novena for Life and Liberty, drone aircraft is mentioned as an example of how the technology used in killing is more advanced, but "the end result is the same for the victims."

In looking through the Catechism (CCC) and statements made by the Bishops I run into a little problem. How the heck do you categorize drone strikes? Do I look up war? Do I look up self-defense? What about assassination? Luckily for me, all of these things say similar things.

Borrowed from here.

The need for Absolute Certainty

In the case of the death penalty (CCC 2267) and in war (A Pastoral Message: Living with Faith and Hope After September 11), we cannot use lethal force without absolute certainty that we are punishing the correct person. This requires if not due process than at least an accountability structure in place.

"Accountability and transparency" is notably lacking in this instance. It seems as if we simply need a high-ranking official, presumably President Obama, to make the phone call and it's as good as done. Where is the certainty in that?

Side-rant: This is one of the areas where this entire issue makes me sick (you know, aside from civilian casualties). Where are the anti-war activists? I belong to basically every tree-hugger mailing list in the US and I have never received anything about these drones. I had to actively search on the Amnesty International site to see one report and an action. To put this into perspective, torture has it's own section. For the record, I'm a pro-life Democrat (as near impossible as that is some days) and it makes me sick to see so many liberals and Democrats defend the president out of some kind of party loyalty. The same Democrats who questioned the policy under Bush are defending its expansion under Obama. (Some articles about it.) What? Because you trust Obama more? I trust no human being with this kind of power. We are not God. Now back to your regular programming...

Grave and Certain Threat

Just War Theory (as summarized CCC 2309) clearly states that:
"The damage inflicted by the aggressor on the nation or community of nations must be lasting, grave, and certain."
The memo states that the person targeted for the drone strike must be an "imminent threat." Commentator after commentator after commentator has pointed out that "imminent threat" is twisted and turned nearly meaningless in this policy. So, this requirement of "just war" is arguably not met. Certainly, terrorism is lasting and grave, but without some sort of due process (see above), how can you be determine that a particular person is imminently going to attack? In order for an act of war to be just, it must be in response to a real threat, not an imagined one.

Proportionate Response

In CCC 2264, St. Thomas Aquinas is quoted saying that moderate means of self-defense is always morally licit because one is bound to care for one's own life more than another's. Even if lethal means are necessary, it is acceptable to do whatever you need to do to defend your life. That said, it is unlawful to use more force than necessary. The drone policy reflects this in stating that capture must be infeasible. But, once again, who is the judge of that? And, is capture or death the only way we can defend ourselves? Would it be more proportionate to use the billions we're spending on drones in beefing up security? I'm sorry that I have more questions than answers on this issue, but I think these questions need to be raised.

Prospects of Success

Killing one terrorist inspires many others. Our war on terror isn't gaining us any friends in the middle east. A war is only just if there are "serious prospects of success" (CCC 2309). IMHO, this part of Just War Theory has not been met in a very, very long time in any of our armed conflicts. But I regress, I have no evidence for the first two sentences in this paragraph. All I have are quotes from people who know the region much better than I do and my own observation seeing terrorists celebrated as martyrs.

Take our strikes in Yemen for example. It made an enraged populace more sympathetic to Al-Qaeda. This only led to more violence, leading many people to question its effectiveness. (Tip of the proverbial iceberg.)

So, when killing one terrorist makes ten more, when is the killing going to end? Here's some more Daily Show for you:



My conclusion, I know that what is legal is not always moral and what is illegal is not always immoral, but it does bother me that only a third of all supporters of drones are concerned about the legality. I have recently lost all respect for one of SE Cupp's colleagues on The Cycle over this very thing (granted, he didn't have very far to fall). 


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CCC 2312 clearly states:

"The Church and human reason both assert the permanent validity of the moral law during armed conflict. 'The mere fact that war has regrettably broken out does not mean that everything becomes licit between the warring parties.'"
People who are for the drone program have said that we are in war, we are in a different kind of war, so anything goes to defend ourselves. This is fundamentally wrong. The state of war does not rob our enemy of his or her humanity. Because they are against us does not make them any less human than those who are for us. This is the primary reason that my conscience cannot support our current use of drones.

My Catholic conclusion, looking at Just War Theory and statements made by the bishops, it would seem as if the appropriate Catholic response would be to question the morality of how this program functions. I could see, however, how a Catholic in good conscience could support the program in general.

For example: CCC 2309 states:

the use of arms must not produce evils and disorders graver than the evil to be eliminated. The power of modern means of destruction weighs very heavily in evaluating this condition.
Although I don't agree with ipso facto judging many lives to be more valuable than one (each life is infinitely valuable), our best estimate is that the number of civilian casualties of drones is in the hundreds while the attacks on 9/11 killed nearly 3,000. So, it can be argued that the evils of drones are not as bad as the evils of terrorism that the drones protect us from. But I still say we need more transparency and oversight.

Writing of interest:

An MA Thesis that argues that Just War Theory legitimatizes the CIA targeted killing program

A paper titled "The Right to Life in War and Peace"

An interesting NCR article

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