Christianity Today Magazine asked this of three Christian thinkers in the August issue:
Drones: Is It Wrong to Kill by Remote Control?
Let Character Prevail
Daniel M. Bell Jr. is a professor at Lutheran Theological Southern Seminary and author of Just War as Christian Discipleship: Recentering the Tradition in the Church rather than the State (Brazos Press).
If the question regarding the use of drones is about the physical or psychological distance between the trigger and its effects, then the answer is no, the use of drones is not intrinsically immoral. Just war as a Christian discipline does not require proximity. One is not required to stare into the enemy’s eyes as one pulls the trigger. If proximity were a condition of just war, just war would be a matter of fisticuffs and knives, and the chain of command (a kind of remote control for war) would be pretty short.
This is not to say that using drones and other weapons that enable killing at a distance does not raise important questions. The history of Christian just-war reflection is peppered with a suspicion of weapons that kill at a distance, from archers to airplanes and now drones. But the moral question is not that of physical distance. Rather, it is one of character, of virtue.
The concern with the introduction of archers and various bows was not that of psychological distance, but of honor and courage. Did those who used such weapons have the requisite virtues to wield them not merely effectively but also ethically?
At first glance, the idea that technology like predator drones might raise questions of character and virtue seems odd. After all, we live in a culture that too often acts as if technology can replace character (see the first Iron Man movie). So, we think, the key to moral wars is smarter weapons and better technology instead of better people. Yet technology is no better than the people who use it.
No matter how precise the weaponry or how close the trigger to its effects, if the one pulling the trigger is not a person of character formed in the virtues that characterize a just war people, then that technology will only amplify vice.
There are people, even in the military, who are concerned that U.S. military superiority, including drones, may make resorting to war too easy. Again, this is not a question of distance but of character. With less effective weaponry and more military parity, the effects of vice are naturally blunted; with more effective weaponry and fewer obstacles to their use, any deficit of character is more glaring and palpable.
Such superiority and such technology are not inherently unjust. In the hands of a people committed not simply to more effective and less costly (on our side) warfare, but also to justice, prudence, courage, temperance, and charity, it seems clear that technology and distance need not present a problem. On the contrary, they could aid a virtuous people in being more discriminating and proportionate and, thus, more just in their wars.
Therefore, the moral challenge of unmanned predator drones is this: Is the church teaching the virtues and Christian discipline of just war doctrine needed to use such technology and weaponry not merely effectively and efficiently, but also to use it wisely?
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