Drone Metaphysics in the Age of Trump

US, drones
A US MQ-9 Reaper drone

President Barack Obama left his successor a drone program of unprecedented geographic size and scope that affords the executive broad legal authorities to conduct targeted assassinations with little oversight or accountability. With this program Mr. Obama also left countless unresolved legal, ethical, and existential issues.

The power to instantly vaporize enemies with zero risk to life or limb was too tempting for the Nobel peace prize-winner, who authorized at least ten times more drone strikes than George W. Bush. Now, President Donald J. Trump appears set to take the U.S. “death from above” program to entirely new heights by dismantling some of the few limits Mr. Obama had put in place.

The New York Times reported last week that the White House is mulling broadening the scope of targets and scrapping thorough vetting procedures. In addition, the C.I.A. reportedly wants to expand the geographic reach of its covert drone program into, for the first time, Afghanistan.

Human rights groups and many legal experts blasted Mr. Obama for authorizing the expansion of a global targeted assassination program they felt violated international law and the ethics of war – questions that continue to loom large into the Trump era.

University of California at Berkeley Law Professor Christopher Kutz told The Globe Post that drone strikes can certainly be justified inside declared war zones if, for example, they meet criteria of self-defense such as “imminence and necessity” among other laws of armed conflict.

“There certainly are ways to use drones that are legitimate,” Kutz said. “But using lethal force across international borders, irrespective of whether a state of armed conflict exists within the targeted territory, and largely independent of any meaningful application of the criteria of self-defense… [is] not legitimate.”

While policy and legal implications of drone warfare have been hotly debated for years, less explored has been how it impacts society at large – members of the society doing the targeting that is – including how it affects our values, identities, even our very souls.

Many Americans, for example, seem to accept or willfully ignore the consequences of drone strikes in faraway lands. Meanwhile Afghans, especially in the tribal areas, likely view this remote long-distance mode of warfare as cowardly.

This, coupled with civilian deaths, can force the U.S and its allies to lose the moral high ground to groups like the Taliban, of all people.

University of Chichester Professor of Critical Theory Benjamin Noys told The Globe Post that lack of public concern over drone warfare might have something to do with identification with “our” troops – be it U.S. or U.K. – versus a “racialized” enemy.

In addition, he speculated, discourses of safety and protection likely override moral concerns when it comes to drones.

“In the age of a highly-technological and often outsourced military I think there is a general acceptance of technological fixes,” Noys added. “And avoidance of casualties for ‘us’ has become central.”

In addition to the ethical and moral dilemmas raised in destroying vulnerable countries are existential concerns – including the prospect of the machine turning on its creator.

University of Utah Professor of Law Wayne McCormack told The Globe Post that ever since David used a slingshot against Goliath, humankind has struggled with the ethics of technological developments. Going beyond ethics, however, he noted how such advancements can threaten our very existence.

“There are many knowledgeable people who say that artificial intelligence will inevitably overtake humans’ ability to control it,” Mr. McCormack said. “I doubt that ‘The Matrix’ could become reality before humans become extinct for other reasons, but I don’t bet on any future predictions, my own or others.”

Because of cyber capabilities, for example, the infrastructure of an entire nation can be destroyed with the push of a button, he added.

“Could the machine push the button itself?” McCormack asked. “I have no idea why my electronic gadgets do some of the things they do, so how can we know whether one of them will take its own destructive course at some point? Can we stop it?”

The Dr. Frankensteins of social media, he added, will also have to see if they can control their creations.

“I don’t think the gadgets can change who we are, but we have to be the ones in control of our values,” the Utah law professor said. “That question has disturbed every warfare observer for thousands of years. Sun Tzu and the Book of Manu worried about this in past millennia. That fact alone tells me that the moral questions persist in the face of rapid technological change.”

Johns Hopkins University Professor and military historian Michael Vlahos believes that our reliance on UAVs presents a moral hazard that, if continually exploited, will come back to haunt us.

“As for the drone, it sucks us into a future in which we find ourselves killing anyone on the planet who annoys us – an Olympian perch that is corrupt as the Gods in the Greek Pantheon themselves,” Vlahos told The Globe Post.

The seductive power of the drone, the professor admonished, does more than simply tarnish one’s soul.

“But here we will be hoist to our own petard as drone proliferation becomes the global norm, and we find ourselves targets as well – the assassin nation itself on an increasingly long hit list,” Vlahos concluded.