When drone operator Brandon Bryant went to work in Nevada every morning, he sat down at a console depicting vivid scenes from Afghan and Pakistani villages 7,000 miles away and asked himself, “What motherf---er is going to die today?” At first, said Matthew Power in GQ, Bryant believed that the drones he operated were a force for good—eliminating terrorists and “limiting the suffering of war” with their precision. But after six years of God-like killing from above, in which he saw a child vaporized on his screen and hundreds of people get blown into pieces, Bryant’s doubts about the morality of his job grew. He turned down a $109,000 bonus to continue as a drone pilot and walked away with a severe case of PTSD. His final kill total: 1,626. “The number made me sick to my stomach,” he said. The numbers should sicken all of us, said Kelly James Clark in HuffingtonPost.com. Two new reports from Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch are challenging the myth that drones kill only terrorists, detailing the “accidental” deaths of hundreds of innocent people around the world—killings that Amnesty says “may constitute war crimes.’’ In Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Yemen, our drones’ “reign of terror” has infuriated local populations, and “proven vastly more effective than al Qaida in turning Muslims against the United States.”
It isn’t quite that simple, said The Economist in an editorial. National polls may show most Pakistanis opposed to drone strikes in their country, but among residents of the “tribal badlands” along the Afghan border, which is where the strikes are happening, you’ll find a “sizable minority” strongly in favor. Why? For the simple reason, as one elder from North Waziristan put it, that “drone attacks are killing the militants who are killing innocent people.” Interviews with people in these tribal areas indicate that the human rights groups’ estimates are overblown, and that “the drones do not kill many civilians.”
The threat from Islamic militants is real, said David Pilling in FT.com, but that does not justify the U.S. mounting “a pre-emptive killing spree” from the safety of air-conditioned control centers thousands of miles away. The U.S. can deny killing civilians, but Amnesty’s report cites specific people killed, including a 14-year-old boy and a 68-year-old grandmother obliterated as she picked vegetables next to her grandchildren. And then there’s the morally repellent practice of “rescuer attacks”: launching one drone strike against suspected militants, and then a second strike minutes later to wipe out “those who come to the aid of the wounded,” on the assumption that they, too, are guilty of something.
There is certainly “something repulsive about killing by remote control,” said Allan Massie in The Scotsman (U.K.), but there’s a more practical way the program could soon backfire. “America has no monopoly on drones.” Indeed, other nations are already hard at work acquiring this technology. By proclaiming the right to kill perceived enemies in sovereign states, the U.S. has paved the way for China, Russia, and any other foreign government to assassinate escaped dissidents and other enemies abroad. So where are the rules? asked The New York Times. President Obama promised in May to ratchet back the use of drone strikes and institute tighter guidelines for these killings, “but those guidelines have never been made public.” Until there is more transparency, Americans have no way of judging whether the government’s pursuit of terrorists has led to indiscriminate slaughter by remote control.