In February the Obama administration's legal argument for the use of armed drones was revealed in the press. The ACLU responded with legal critiques and the UN is currently conducting its own analysis. Academics have been offering analysis as well, such as Michael Walzer and Maryann Cusimano Love. For the most part these analyses consider laws of war, "just" war theory and civil rights. However, Cusimano Love's analysis notably mentions a key limit, namely that "just" war theory does not tell us how to build peace.
Focusing on the "just" war theory as the key frame of moral analysis for armed drones also fails to adequately engage our imagination for practices of nonviolent peacemaking. This focus also lowers our capacity to sustain peacemaking practices, and offers little insight into envisioning the justpeace which "just" war theory purports to intend. "Just" war theory also depends on, but doesn't develop, the "just people" needed to interpret, apply and revise the criteria.
But even more significant, "just" war theory doesn't prioritize or illuminate a more important moral question about human habits. I recommend we shift the primary analysis of armed drones from law, "just" war theory and rights to the question, "what kind of people are we becoming by using armed drones?" The following discussion provides an example of where this ethical approach might draw us.
Increasing fear in communities
With drones killing people, we become the kind of people who cultivate fear in communities as they wonder if they may be attacked just because they are in the wrong place at the wrong time. Drones provoke high anxiety in communities and children become especially afraid. Parents often fear sending their kids to school or going to the market. This anxiety and fear is incredibly destructive to trust in communities, and as many have pointed out, drone killing also leads people to turn to other fear-based strategies, including acts we often describe as "terrorism."
Increasing impersonal engagements of conflict
Armed drones are an impersonal means of engaging conflicts. By relying on the latest destructive machine to settle conflict and destroy the other, we become increasingly less capable and willing to engage various conflicts in ways that are in accord with our human dignity. For instance, we become less likely to create conditions to defuse the hostility, such as using development programs, restorative justice practices or nonviolent civilian resistance training. Furthermore, we also become less likely to speak face-to-face with our opponents, less empathetic for the other, less prone to healing and more apt to ignoring, excluding and de-faming. The capacity for empathy is a core virtue of human flourishing, one that President Obama has promoted in the past. But armed drones significantly damage our capacity for empathy in addition to lowering the empathy that others may have for us.
This impersonal way of engaging conflict is also manifested in the video-game mentality of the drone controllers. Such objectification contributes to the habits in our culture of relating to others primarily as instruments for economic gain, political power, sexual gratification, etc. One of the direct manifestations of this habit is the development of higher rates of post-traumatic stress syndrome in military drone operators compared to soldiers in combat zones.
Avoiding the roots of conflicts
Using armed drones also lowers our engagement of the roots of conflicts. Although drones may appear to be immediate or short-term resolutions, we soon end up facing the same conflict re-surfacing in new ways. Then we wonder why we seem to lurch from hostility to hostility. We must develop practices and habits that get closer to the roots of conflict to transform them into opportunities for growth and human flourishing. In our culture, this habit of avoiding root causes shows up too often in our criminal justice system, school disciplinary systems, immigration debates and even friends' unwillingness to offer constructive critique to each other. Using armed drones will exacerbate this habit and cultural problems that arise from it.
Diminishing key virtues
Using armed drones diminishes other key virtues besides empathy. For instance, the virtue of hope in others, particularly regarding the capacity to change, will falter. We see this showing up in the ways we too often disconnect, avoid or give up on people who think differently than us in our families, in the criminal justice system and in our political debates.
The virtue of solidarity with all people, especially the poor and marginalized, will become less active. We damage solidarity not only by increasing fear and cultivating fear-based strategies of violence in poor and marginalized communities, but also by instigating an arms race in drones, which diverts funds away from those in urgent need.
The virtue of courage, which risks one's life to lift up the dignity of all people, will also be diminished. This is incredibly damaging to our capacity to imagine, enact and sustain the practices of nonviolent civilian resistance, which has driven our greatest social movements and overthrown dictators across the globe in much more sustainable ways than any violent approach.
The virtue of justice also suffers as we increase our use of armed drones. A preoccupation with technical legal issues regarding the use of lethal force risks diverting attention from the deeper and more significant form of justice that focuses on the harms done to relationships and how to heal them. Perpetuating this habit will likely increase other destructive patterns in our culture such as our high recidivism, divorce and suicide rates.
The virtue of nonviolent peacemaking, which realizes the good of conciliatory love that draws enemies toward friendship, is also diminished by continued reliance on armed drones. To recognize this virtue is not to deny that violence is part of our experience, but to acknowledge that the habit of nonviolent peacemaking is a basic component of human flourishing. For those professing Christianity, which many of our leaders do, Jesus’ example clarifies that nonviolent peacemaking is a central virtue.
The strategies and tactics we engage in become practices, which in turn cultivate the habits of human persons and societies. Although John Brennan claims that armed drones satisfy the "principle of humanity," the analysis above indicates some deeper concerns and a fuller vision of "humanity" we should attend to. It should be made more clear that the use of armed drones is inconsistent with human dignity and, thus, with the fullness of human rights, and even more important, human flourishing.
Eli S. McCarthy is a professor at Georgetown University and director of Justice and Peace for the Conference of Major Superiors of Men.