The New York Times’ “Room for Debate” asks “Do Drone Attacks Do More Harm Than Good?” James Cavallaro and Sarah Knuckey, co-authors with Stephan Sonnenberg of the Stanford/NYU report “Living Under Drones”, pointed out that the narrative that drones strikes are “surgically precise” and enable “targeted killings” of “terrorists” is false. Their report estimated only 2% of those killed are “high-level” targets, while the number of civilian deaths from drone strikes is estimated to be somewhere between 474 and 881. The presence of the deadly drones in the skies over Pakistan also cause a psychological toll on the local populations.
These facts don’t stop Avery Plaw from arguing in favor of the drones anyways. Or does he? His headline declares “Drones Save Lives, American and Other”, but he writes that it is a “a tough call”. He declares that “drone strikes have done more good than harm and should be continued”, but then adds, “provided that the Obama administration can offer more clarity on what’s being done and can provide a sound legal justification for doing it.” So I guess when the administration continues to refuse to provide a sound legal justification for drone attacks, we can expect Plaw to write articles expressing his opposition to them?
Plaw’s cognitive dissonance is evident elsewhere in his contribution to the debate. He declares that drones strikes “are weakening Al Qaeda, the Taliban and affiliated groups, and hence protecting lives, American and other”, but then points out that there is a “cost in civilian lives, the alienation of parts of the Islamic world, potential harm to the authority of international law, and the possibility that drone use will spread around the world, generating more conflict”. His is a WAR = PEACE kinda logic: murdering innocent civilians and undermining international law protects lives.
Plaw next argues that “states have a primary responsibility for the protection of their own citizens”, and he declares that “drone strikes are the best way to remove an all-too-real threat to American lives”. But what “citizens” are threatened by militants in Pakistan? American soldiers in Afghanistan. So, in other words, Plaw is arguing that countries have a “responsibility” to violate international law and indiscriminately murder civilians in order to protect the lives of their soldiers participating in a military occupation on foreign soil. In other words, a “responsibility” to commit war crimes.
Then Plaw states, “I doubt that ending drone strikes would substantially reduce anti-Americanism in the Islamic world or put a dent in radical recruitment”. But he had just acknowledged that the strikes contribute to “the alienation of parts of the Islamic world”. So how can it be that ending one of the causes of anti-American sentiment would not help to reduce said sentiment? This is like witnessing a house burning and people throwing fuel on the fire and arguing that if they stopped throwing fuel on the fire, it won’t help them to put out the flames. Again, the cognitive dissonance is just absolutely astonishing, and I find it remarkable that such unadulterated nonsense is found worthy of print.
Last, he repeats the standard argument that “drone strikes are less harmful to civilians than other means”. But any act of violence anywhere for any reason could be justified according to this logic, since there may always be some other means of violence that would be even more deadly to innocent lives. We may stipulate that drone strikes are less harmful to civilians than other available means. Sure, they don’t kill as many civilians as, say, a nuclear bomb. It kills fewer civilians than if we, say, carpet bombed Pakistan. But it does not follow from these observations that therefore the drone strikes are a good thing. It does not follow that they are therefore justified—particularly not when, as Plaw admits, there isn’t a sound legal argument for their use and they do kill civilians.
C. Christine Fair illustrates similar cognitive dissonance with her contribution, titled “For Now, Drones Are the Best Option”, which she opens by saying that it is better to continue the drone strikes in Pakistan even though “It is impossible to say whether drone warfare has done more harm than good” there. So even though the attacks might admittedly be doing “more harm than good”, continuing them is a better option than ending them. Remarkable.
By what logic does she arrive at this conclusion? She points out that the U.S. has “revealed little about actual targets and outcomes, so we cannot assess whether the people they were trying to kill were ‘drone worthy.’” In other words, we don’t know if the U.S. is killing “terrorists”, as it claims to, or innocent civilians. But we must give the benefit of the doubt not to innocent civilians, but to the committer of the violence that is potentially killing them. This logic is absurd even if we allow Fair her assumption that “we cannot assess” the situation, which we must also reject. We know that the U.S. government applies a standard whereby any adult male killed in a drone strike is automatically defined as a “combatant” simply by virtue of having been killed in a drone strike. We also know that the number of targets Fair describes as “drone worthy” represent a very small percentage of the actual victims. We have media reports and studies from organizations like the Bureau of Investigative Journalism and this latest study from Stanford/NYU. In effect, Fair is applying a standard that anyone killed in a drone strike must be guilty until proven innocent.
This is the standard she employs to arrive at the conclusion that “drones are the best alternative”. But “alternative” to what? To not murdering innocent civilians with illegal drone strikes on foreign soil? Fair begs the question by saying it is the “best alternative, once the United States … decides that a person is to be killed” (emphasis added). Her conclusion, “Drones may not be desirable but they are the best option at least in the tribal areas”, is the same as her premise. So Fair avoids the question of whether we should or should not be killing people in Pakistan with drones by starting from an assumption that we are going to kill people there, so we might as well use drones to do it. That is to say, the premise of her argument consists of the very conclusion to be proven. Circular logic aside, moreover, this is like arguing that using a gun is the best alternative for a thief, once he has decided to kill a homeowner to take his property, since using a knife would likely be such a slower, much more painful death. It’s a reiteration of that same standard fallacious argument Plaw used. At least Plaw didn’t beg the question.
The drone strikes are a violation of international law. They murder innocent civilians. They foment anti-American sentiment and serve as a recruitment poster for extremist groups, thus escalating rather than mitigating the threat of terrorism. There’s just no room for debate, and the fact that such ridiculous logical fallacies as the above are resorted to in an attempt to create an academic “debate” where none should exist is highly instructive. While people like Plaw and Fair defend U.S. policy, people on the ground in Pakistan are dying. People like Plaw and Fair and other members of the U.S. “intelligentsia” who try to defend U.S. violence are complicit in the resulting murders of innocent civilians. Period.