America Is Asking All the Wrong Questions About Drones

We should be asking, "Is it ethical to use drones anywhere?

A crew chief conducts a post flight inspection of a RQ-1 Predator drone at Balad Air Base, Iraq, Sept. 15, 2004.
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Jack L. Amoureux is a Visiting Assistant Professor of politics and international affairs at Wake Forest University, who teaches "The Politics of Technology and Violence."

Whether or not drones should be employed in the United States is the wrong question. Americans should be asking, "Is it ethical to use drones anywhere?"

Recently, concerns about how the U.S. government manages and deploys its fleet of around 7,000 drones have become especially prominent. Just last year President Obama, under mounting pressure, acknowledged the systematic use of drones in Iraq, Afghanistan, and elsewhere after a U.S. citizen was killed by a drone strike in Yemen.

Senate hearings on whether to confirm a key architect of the drone program, John Brennan, as director of the CIA underscore the increasingly urgent questions being asked of the administration. As part of the confirmation process, several senators insisted that the president share secret memoranda about drones, and Senator Rand Paul, R-Ky., mounted a 13-hour filibuster on the Senate floor over the administration's refusal to rule out the possibility of a drone strike against a U.S. citizen on domestic soil.

But drones have become a hot button issue for a surprisingly diverse set of political actors only as armed drones flying over our heads have become more of a reality. Opposition has coalesced around the constitutional rights of U.S. citizens and a call for greater transparency and regulation of domestic drones. There is, however, a worrisome void in this debate about U.S. drone policy and practice—the lack of focus on the ethics of drones, whether used domestically or abroad. This neglect puts the United States out of step with the debates that are happening in the areas of the world most affected by drones.

[See a collection of political cartoons on President Obama's drone policy.]

Passionate debates about the future use of unmanned aircraft in the U.S. should cause Americans to consider how the use of drones is already a source of daily fear for millions outside the U.S. In researching media coverage of drones over the past 12 years, I have found striking differences in what is reported in the U.S. press relative to Arab media.

U.S. news outlets largely ignore pressing ethical questions about drones as a way to wage war and instead fixate on the technological and strategic innovations of drones, their multiple uses, diplomatic intrigue over downed drones in ‘unfriendly' countries, and whether drones strikes are legal. In contrast, Arab media tend to focus on the loss of life among families and communities, the multifaceted costs of drones as weapons, and U.S. disregard for other nations' sovereignty.

In covering the Middle East, Afghanistan, and Pakistan, news sources such as Al Jazeera and Asharq Al-Awsat depict individuals who speak of the psychological terror from the daily presence of drones. They share stories of people constantly wondering which patterns of behavior drone controllers find suspicious. And, they reveal a sense of inferiority and embarrassment when a large, powerful country arrives on their soil to make decisions about who will live and die, how much civilian death is acceptable, and how a "militant" will be defined (loosely, it turns out). Citizens in these countries worry that all of these drones are creating more extremism and terror at home. And they incredulously ask whether drones are not themselves a form of terror.

[Read the U.S. News Debate: Has Obama Gone Too Far With His Drone Policies?]

The American public is not debating these issues and engaging in dialogue and deliberation with those most affected by our drone policies. We choose not to elicit and listen to these voices. If we did, we could ask: Are we creating acute conditions of insecurity in other countries when individuals constantly live in fear of death falling from the sky? Is it fair to search for security for ourselves at the expense of insecurity for others? Are drones really the best alternative for the welfare of everyone, both in the short-term and long-term?