Reaper drone

Drones are taking a major role in President Obama’s national security efforts, which is surprising to some and sensible to others. But it’s safe to say that all around, using drones raises big moral questions about the transparency of war, civilian casualties and setting geopolitical precedence.

Drones and the Obama Administration 12 June,2012forum

Daniel Klaidman, special correspondent for Newsweek and The Daily Beast and author of "Kill or Capture: The War on Terror and the Soul of the Obama Presidency"
Medea Benjamin, co-founder of CODEPINK and Global Exchange and author of "Drone Warfare: Killing by Remote Control"
Thomas Henriksen, senior fellow at the Hoover Institution at Stanford University whose most recent book is "American Power after the Berlin Wall"

  • Rhet

    Congress is comprised of hundreds of drones operated via remote control by corporate lobbyists, who are themselves remote-controlled hatchet men for the 1%. They bomb and explode the 99%’s future on a daily basis.

  • Chrisco

    I am pretty disturbed by the killing of al-Awlaki’s 16 year-old American citizen son, who I think had a Facebook page. There was also the 16-year old who attended a drone conference in Pakistan to be trained on filming the aftermath of drone attacks. He was killed by a drone attack 3 days after the conference.

    There are reports of drone attacks on the people who come to the aid of those targeted in immediately prior drone attacks. And there have been many reports of drone attacks at funerals of militants killed in earlier drone attacks.

    This is unacceptable.

  • Sam

    On a moral level, what is the difference between a drone strike which causes high collateral damage in Yemen and Pakistan, and the killings by the Syrian state of its own people, aside from the citizenship of the innocent victims? An innocent Syrian child killed by a tank shell and an innocent Yemeni child killed by a hellfire missile are equally dead and equally innocent.

    The argument by Mr Henriksen that it is “more humane” is absurd at face value, every method of war is “more humane” than other more brutal forms of warfare, but this does not make this new method of warfare morally acceptable.

    • ZenFox

      But what is the alternative?  To simply have a dialogue with those doing their best to kill you?

  • Tripp Robbins

    It’s not so much that drones are problems in ipse, it’s that there’s been so much collateral damage. Drones (and related robotic things) are here to stay. What needs to happen is more precision in the attacks.

  • mgtb

    It’s chilling enough that the President is personally signing off on a kill list week after week without any external review. That the NYT and other media outlets haven’t indicated that this might be immoral is unconscionable.

    If the President thinks his actions are defensible because he’s following the writings of St. Augustine and Thomas Aquinas, he’s missed the central core of Christian teachings which are about peace and love—not targeted assassinations. He may have read about “just war,” but that doesn’t indicate that he’s exercising “moral responsibility,” any more than his studies of Constitutional law have meant that he was authorized to kill U.S. citizen Anwar Awlake without due process.

    The School of Salamanca which was based on Thomas Aquinas’ philosophy said that, “Once war has begun, there remain moral limits to action. For example, one may not attack innocents or kill hostages.”

    Presumably this idea would apply to all the civilian deaths caused by drone attacks—including Awlaki’s 16-year-old American son Abdulrahman, who by all accounts was completely innocent, yet was killed by a U.S. drone two weeks after his father’s death.

    I also doubt that Aquinas, who believed that “peace must be a central motive,” would have supported redefining militants to mean all military-age males in a strike zone as a justification for collateral damage or indiscriminate killing.

    George Orwell would have understood it well, though, when he said: “Political language is designed to make lies sound truthful and murder respectable, and to give an appearance of solidity to pure wind.”

    • utera

      Love to see folks like you send your own children in to apprehend the suspects instead of using drones.

      Its easy to get on a high horse when you have no solutions.

      • mgtb

        Overlooking the fact that you don’t know if I have children—and if so if they have served in the military, and have no idea about any solutions I believe in or work that I have done to implement them, luckily I am able to place myself in other peoples’ shoes enough so that I can imagine how I would feel if my child was killed by an errant drone. It is not only our own children whose lives are sacrificed when they are sent to war; other peoples’ children, too, are killed, and their young lives are written off as collateral damage.

        While the rules of war might condone these kinds of drone strikes in certain situations, they are being used in places far away from the battle ground where the rules of war don’t apply. Which makes the killing even more unconscionable.

  • Sacto. Pete

    Any defense against drones? Can the mafia use them?

    • Rhet

       The mafia are only allowed to buy the cat copter:

  • Matthew

    The thing about weddings in afghanistan that they involve people shooting many guns into the air at the same time, which to a pilot could be understood as being under fire…

  • Gregory Slater

    You didn’t answer the last caller’s question – are we manufacturing more terrorists than we are killing by our actions.  what are we actually trying to accomplish?  this is not a war.

  • Bdasherdasher

    The assumption that we have to pursue this war on terror forever means that it is easy to justify the drones. Let’s declare victory and get on with healing our relationship with the people in the middle east.

    If some drone action were taken against US, it would be treated as terrorism, for sure.

  • Mat

    War always inclueds the killing of innocents.  Let’s do all possible diplomatically to avoid war, and if armed respose to an enemy is the only alternative to protecting our citizens, we must do all we can to avoid killing the innocent.  But we must not let our fear of collatoral killing to veto actions needed to protect us.  There are good reasons to not use drones, but minimal killing of civilians is not one of them.


    • Mat,
      Since when does killing women & kids (which you call “collateral damage”) make USA safer?
      Sorry but too hard to believe these lies.

  • Gregory Slater

    what is our goal?

  • Chrisco

    I appreciate the show. Klaidman asserted that al-Awlaki was deeply involved with operations. That is crucial since it is quite different than offensive speech advocating attacking Americans, which we all know Awlaki was guilty of. It seems his talks were very effective in galvanizing young Muslims to attack the US. But such speech is protected by the Constitution (or used to be – see Tarek Mehanna’s conviction), while the attacks are not.

    If this U.S. citizen was involved in operations and was targeted for death, we have a right to see this evidence. In fact, there should be an indictment before such killing. I can not accept assertions by anonymous government officials relayed to journalists. I want to see evidence. This is especially since we know he was very effective with his Constitutionally protected speech advocating violence.

    So to me, it appears he was attacked for being a very effective speaker advocating violence generally, which the Supreme Court said was legal in Brandenburg v. Ohio.

  • James Ivey

    I’m a bit conflicted here. 

    On one hand, I’m very disturbed that civilians are dying from these drone attacks.

    On the other hand, our grandparents carpet-bombed entire cities just a few decades ago.  They specifically targeted civilians, yet we call them “the greatest generation.”

    The Bush Administration carefully separated the wars from US civilian life, both hiding the budget and resisting the draft.  I wonder if wars would be less frequent and smaller if civilians weren’t able to live in peace while others did the fighting.  Would a pacifist imam still allow Al Qaeda to hide in his neighborhood if such tacit complicity could cost him his life?

    • What did Al Queda do which was so bad that thousands of innocent people should be killed bc they live near someone who ”may be” a so-called bad guy?

    • utera

      Yep basically if they had not bombed in world war2, we could have sent millions more men into the meat grinder, no collateral damage at any cost is just not realistic.

      I’d give the critics more credit if they presented themselves and their children as the front line of this “at any cost” strategy, lose 100 san fran natives to apprehend one terrorist in pakistan for instance, then they could speak with some credibility behind their words, but as we know, they are the least likely to volunteer for such duty, having general disdain for war and the military.

      So in the end its sitting on a high horse for the sake of it.  Its easy to sneer when you know what will be done will be done by others while you scream with no workable solutions of your own.

  • Gregory Slater

    it’s amazing how many nobel prize winners and human rights activists are now enthusiastic proponents of assassination.

  • Sarah

    Can you speak to the use of drones used in the U.S. on U.S citizens?

  • Gregory Slater

    why do they hate us?

    • Rhet

       We invented bubble gum.

      • Gregory Slater

        I thought the Chinese invented bubble gum?

  • Gregory Slater

    do the American people have any right at all to know anything?

  • Do Not Kill Registry

    To avoid drone attacks, sign up for the do not kill registry today! ( )

  • Gregory Slater

    Please ask your guest how large is the Al Qaeda Number Two organization

  • Striking by drone seems like a fairly new technology for the most part. It may have not been as developed during the Bush years so Obama is getting blamed for using it more, but it may be that it’s just a new technology.  Obama used more drones than Nixon, or for that matter Abraham Lincoln. Future presidents are likely to use it more and more, while using piloted aircraft less. That is, unless we find a way to reduce the human practice of warfare.

  • Drone strikes into foreign countries killing pregnant women and babies — AND calling it anti-terrorism?!?
    Too hard to stomache this type of blatant lying.
    Sorry, when the “good guys” have a higher body count than the “bad guys” and are daily blowing up lots of innocent people, the propagandistic narrative breaks.
    A Democracy simply cannot exist with a secret military war where there is no accountability, information to the public, and no rule of law.

    • utera

      When the foreign countries are filled with populations that are filled with hatred they are not so innocent.

      I’m sorry but you think osama bin ladins wives were all forced to marry him?  No, your lefty illusions about poor oppressed innocent women and children is based on ignorance, many had college educations, they chose to support an evil man, they made it their mission to support him. Surveys of public opinion in those countries spell it out, they are no innocents.

  • Gregory Slater

    Just as a sanity check (I know that’s frowned upon in America) – if it could be determined conclusively that for every ‘bad guy’ (however that’s defined) we assassinated with a drone strike at least two previously ‘non-bad guys’ were converted into ‘bad guys’ because their loved ones were killed as ‘collateral damage’ causing them to hate us – in that case, please raise your hand so I can get a count if you still want to keep up the drone strikes until the end of time…

    • Slappy

      It seems that most people are too lazy or scared to think for themselves when it comes to “cause and effect” and would rather have their opinions and facts spoon-fed to them. 

      I find that when arguing with these people (about both the causes of our recent conflicts and the consequences of our actions abroad) they refuse to even question our government; these people somewhat resemble a lower-class housewife that has been battered by an enraged husband but still willing to make excuses for his inexcusable behavior. 

    • utera

      I know thats really how it works, every time you kill someone you create two more, thats why germany won world war 2!

      • Gregory Slater

        As I am sure you noticed, I asked the question hypothetically, as a sanity check.  You probably made the right choice in not taking the test.  Be that as it may, despite our instinctive desire to compare everything with WWII, it is not necessarily a universal gauge of the effectiveness of tactics. Our involvements in numerous countries in the Mideast are not wars to defeat a set army, but occupations of a civilian population inextricably mixed with a tiny but effective resistance.  The history of the success of such colonial occupations (particularly in the Mideast) is not very compelling. Furthermore, in the specific case of our occupations, there is enormous evidence through the personal testimonies of the inhabitants as well as of actual terrorists, that what originally motivated them to fight against the American occupations was neither, (as most Americans are propagandized to believe) that they envied our SUVs, iPhones, and large screen TVs, nor that they wished to establish a global caliphate and impose sharia law on Americans in Peoria, Illinois, etc., but rather the exact opposite – namely, that Americans were in their own country, imposing the Americans will on them by lethal force, and in the process killing civilians. As but one discussion of this motivation, see: 

        As for solutions, we have been in the business of creating monsters in the Mideast more or less continuously since WWI (not 2), primarily because we have lusted after their resources and wanted to control them.  This involvement has cost us trillions and trillions of dollars and many, many thousands of lives (ours and theirs), and has earned us the hatred of large segments of their populations. With that money and time, were it not for the predilections of corporations and in this country, we could have easily developed renewable domestic sources of energy that we could have profitably exported to the world. But that would have taken planning, investment, and long term thinking. It’s still not too late for us to pursue such rational policies rather than the same old insanity we have been pursuing for decades.

Sponsored by

Become a KQED sponsor