Here is the final of three responses to a question asked of three Christian educators/authors on whether the United States should use unmanned predator drones to target enemy forces.
Christianity Today Magazine asked this in the August issue:
Drones: Is It Wrong to Kill by Remote Control?
Follow Just War Rules
Brian Stiltner is an associate professor at Sacred Heart University and co-author of Faith and Force: A Christian Debate about War (GeorgetownUniversity Press).
Drone warfare must be evaluated by the just-conduct standards that apply to every weapon technology: Are civilians rigorously protected from attack, and is the destruction minimized? Supporters of drone attacks enthuse that we are “taking out” many top al Qaeda leaders, with no loss of American lives and very few civilian deaths. Critics claim that the weapons are indiscriminate, destabilizing, and highly suspect under international law.
I do not go as far as critics who see only evil in using military methods in the fight against terrorists. But I stand with them in raising serious questions about the use of drones based on just war criteria. While drones are not inherently indiscriminate or disproportionate, American leaders rely upon them too heavily in an age when the public is reluctant to see American soldiers deployed in combat but eager for assurance that terrorist leaders are being killed.
Understanding the deadliness of drone attacks is difficult. The Obama administration said last year that 20 innocent civilians had been killed by drones in northwest Pakistan, in contrast to that government’s assertion of 700. The truth is likely in the middle. A New America Foundation study of the CIA’s drone attacks in this region from 2004 to 2009 concluded that between 830 and 1,210 individuals were killed, of which about 32 percent were civilians.
That means roughly 300 civilians were killed over a six-year period in a mountainous region smaller than Connecticut. No wonder the drone program is controversial. Both the rate and the number are morally troubling. A civilian casualty rate of 30 percent indicates that drones have not been used with sufficient care.
If the United States is going to continue to use military attacks as part of its fight against terrorism, they must be rigorously controlled. Leaders must take care to use drone technology well, supported by good human intelligence and effective international cooperation. The Obama administration has taken note of the criticism, ratcheting down the number of attacks in 2010, using smaller bombs and better targeting technology, and relying on more spies and greater cooperation with Pakistani intelligence services. The percentage and number of civilian deaths has decreased sharply from the previous year.
The United States should continue in this direction. Ideally, drone programs would be run by the Pentagon alone. Drones are military weapons. They ought to be used only in military campaigns under the standards of military ethics and international law. This does not mean that they cannot be used in the asymmetrical “war on terror,” but like everything else about this war, the U.S. attitude has often been to exempt itself from traditional rules of war rather than to find ways to apply those rules to new challenges.
We should be doing the latter. The point is both to avoid killing civilians and to send the right message about how the United States intends to combat terrorism. Rigorously avoiding civilian deaths, protecting American military personnel, and drying up the supply of Islamist terrorists are not mutually exclusive goals.
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