Droning On

by Jamie Neben

Although unmanned aerial vehicles, more commonly referred to as drones, have been flying the friendly (and often not so friendly) skies for decades, they have suddenly found themselves as a hot topic of discussion.  The United States is hardly the only country that operates this type of aircraft, but our increasing use of drones to eliminate terrorists, which now apparently includes American citizens, and the rapidly growing presence of them here at home puts us in a political and ethical quagmire.

This is a slippery slope if there ever was one.  I believe that drones can be very beneficial under certain conditions as long as there is sufficient oversight and accountability.  But before we delve into the more controversial aspects that have been dominating the Sunday morning talk shows and Senate confirmation hearings, let’s see if we can agree on some positive applications.

Just think about how useful drones might be to aid search and rescue efforts, not just for military personnel, but for missing persons everywhere.  How often do we hear about hikers who are stranded in the mountains?  They could help firefighters and relief workers when the elements are too unfavorable to assess the impact of a fire or other natural disaster.   Faraway lands can be explored while the explorers themselves sit comfortably far away.   There is a myriad of possibilities without the slightest consideration of an attack.

Now, if we’re talking about locating and/or destroying enemies in foreign territory, the drone is an invaluable resource to achieve that objective.  Sending a remotely-controlled drone after a target does not directly put the lives of our soldiers and pilots at risk, and are especially handy when our troops are spread thin. Perhaps that’s why Mitt Romney actually supported the president when asked about the strategy during the debates.

Are there any objections so far?

However, now might be a good time to explain what I meant by “under certain conditions” just a moment ago.   In the case of killing terrorists, as I just stated, sending drones to do the dirty work is preferable to a larger-scale operation.  But this must be done in such a way that prevents collateral damage to civilians.  Innocent people should never have to meet the same fate as the person who is being eliminated.  If absolute precision cannot be assured, the strike should be postponed or canceled.

Furthermore, no single person should have the sole authority to determine which targets are chosen.  Whether going after one individual at a time as deemed necessary or creating a “kill list” in advance, the process must include the cooperation of proper officials in the legislative, intelligence, and military branches.  Of course, the president would be completely involved in the process, and has the right and responsibility to approve or call off an attack when the opportunity arises, but that is not the same as making a unilateral decision on who is selected.

And then there’s the very thorny issue of going after American citizens outside of our nation’s borders.   The U.S. Constitution guarantees all citizens the right to due process, a freedom they are obviously denied when they have a face-to-face meeting with a drone.   The U.S. Department of Justice has concluded that such actions are perfectly legal.  My feeling is that if you’re sleeping with the enemy in terms of being in a foreign land and helping known terrorists plan attacks against your home country, you have effectively revoked your citizenship.  Once upon a time, the common penalty for treason was death.   If the traitor can be easily captured and brought back home, that’s great.  If circumstances dictate a more urgent response, then a drone can deliver the punishment just as well.

Forget the whole thing altogether if the perpetrating takes place within our nation’s borders.   We have far more tools at our disposal to pursue dangerous people and prevent their devious deeds than we do in international settings.  I believe the rights of U.S. citizens are undeniable while standing on American soil, and can only weaken if the activity moves elsewhere.  The last thing we need is the fear of drones crashing down around us at any time.  Attorney General Eric Holder recently stated that he believes there could be a day when the president would need to order a domestic strike, although he conceded that he doesn’t know what specific scenario would require such a drastic step.  I don’t know either.  The only things that should be dropping bombs on citizens around here are the birds.

Finally, law enforcement agencies are starting to get in on the act, and that concerns me.  What purpose will that serve, and who will ensure that the departments are properly trained?  I suppose that monitoring a crime scene or tracking a suspect during a pursuit can help a community stay safe.  As with the federal government, the rules must be well defined and followed.  Some might argue that we’re already living in a police state, but if drones were roaming indiscriminately above our cities, I’d have no choice but to agree with them.  That would be an assault on freedom and cannot be allowed to happen.

What do you think about drones?  Should they be used with caution, used more often, or not be used at all?