God Did Not Create Robots

A look at the immoral present and future of drone warfare.

Many religious leaders, academics, and activists are becoming increasingly concerned about the urgent issues now posed by lethal drones, as well as the truly horrifying prospect of fully automated robotic drones in the future.

These issues were considered at the nation’s first Interfaith Conference on Drone Warfare held at Princeton Theological Seminary last week. More than 150 religious leaders, academics, and activists from 22 states and 20 different religious traditions met to consider not only the serious situation in regard to the current use of drones, but also the dangerous trajectory of development of these weapons.

Lethal drones are the runaway freight train of war in the twenty-first century, fueling the endless wars in which we find ourselves. It is all too apparent that the use of drones has been driven far more by the rapid development of weapons technology than by clear goals for creating peace and security around the world.

And the future promises to be even worse.

Fully automated drones — that is, fully robotic drones — are already in development. The future of lethal drones may be autonomous robotics: “a day when drones hunt, identify and kill the enemy based on calculations made by software, not decisions made by humans.”

Drones are also, therefore, a runaway freight train of immorality in war. It is a future too horrible to contemplate where no person can be held accountable for killing other humans.

Drones: Combat or “targeted killing”?

From a religious perspective, that is totally unacceptable. The world’s religions have always been deeply concerned about the immorality of one human being killing another. We do not read in Genesis about God creating robots, nor about God holding a drone accountable for killing Abel. Taking the human being out of the equation of something as morally contested as killing another person is unacceptable.

At the Interfaith Conference on Drone Warfare, our concerns centered on the nature of lethal drones — namely their operation by remote control, their use in targeted killings of specific individuals (most of whom are Muslims), the consequences that they might increase hostilities, and the civilians they have unintentionally killed.

“Targeted killing” was one issue we considered, as it is certainly immoral and very likely illegal according to international law. The United Nations Special Rapporteur on extrajudicial killings, Philip Alston, has said that the use of drones is not combat as much as “targeted killing.” He has repeatedly attempted, so far unsuccessfully, to get the U.S. to explain how it justifies the use of drones to target and kill individuals under international law.

This is only one of the reasons I, and many others, believe halting the drone program now makes sense in an effort to create the public space to critically examine the entire drone program. We who met at the Interfaith Conference see an acute need to develop strong moral and ethical guidelines that comply with international law to guide the current technologically driven conflict and direct the technologies of the future that threaten to undermine centuries-long moral guidelines on the use of force and the creation of sustainable peace.

We also discussed the danger drones pose in expanding war into areas the U.S. would not otherwise intervene militarily, thus expanding rather than reducing war. This contravenes one of the fundamental rationales for the drone program — that it “saves lives.” Instead, it is our judgment that drone warfare contributes to the endless war that now grips the world, and the “madness” of which Pope Francis speaks when he refers to a kind of “piecemeal” World War III.

Let us immediately stop the U.S. approach to war that is driven by technological developments in weapons. Instead, we should redirect our attention toward how to advance U.S. national priorities without “first resort” drone attacks by concentrating on approaches that promise greater security for the U.S. and the world.

Drones: Don’t stop the discussion

A critical national discussion of the drone program requires a step-by-step approach to changing policies that now prevent or discourage such discussion from taking place. First, the intense secrecy around the program must end. The Administration needs to acknowledge the strikes conducted since the beginning of the program, account for the victims, explain the official criteria for selecting human targets, cite legal justification for authorization of strikes that is in compliance with domestic and international law, detail the methods for investigating deaths from the strikes, and disclose standards for compensating victims.

Very importantly, as part of this national discussion, the Authorization for Use of Military Force should be repealed. Just three days after the attacks of 9/11, Congress passed this overly broad law, which has become a “blank check” for presidents to use military force. The U.S. is not in a “war” on terror. Criminal extremists operate around the world, and a range of strategies needs to be engaged to prevent and police them.

Drone warfare has tempted us from looking at effective strategies for dealing with the forms of extremism present in the world today. Drone strikes look like we are “doing something” about violent extremism when in fact we may very well be inciting further violent extremism.

The CIA realizes this danger. In a document leaked by Wikileaks in December 2014, the CIA’s directorate of intelligence is critical of the “high value targeting” (HVT) conducted in Yemen, Pakistan, and elsewhere involving air strikes and special forces operations used against insurgent leaders. The attacks, he said, “can be effective, but can also have negative effects including increasing violence and greater popular support for extremist groups.” Were the recent attacks in Paris a symptom of this? The leaked document says HVT attacks “may increase support for the insurgents, particularly if these strikes enhance insurgent leaders’ lore, if non-combatants are killed in the attacks, if legitimate or semi-legitimate politicians aligned with the insurgents are targeted, or if the government is already seen as overly repressive or violent.”

Drones: Coming to the United States

Drone strikes are popular because they are made to seem effective, especially in the absence of hard information, in reducing the threat of terrorism without loss of American lives. This is an incredibly dangerous moral position to take. Bodies are still being blown up on battlefields — just not American bodies anymore. Civilians in bombed areas are being killed despite the much-vaunted idea that drones are so “targeted” in their killing of militants that civilian deaths are minimal.

People around the world in countries where the U.S. operates drone programs know how terrible this form of violence can be. It is those in the U.S. who are kept in the dark about it. That is incompatible with democracy.

Make no mistake — drones are coming here. It will not be long before the U.S. is the object of drone attacks. After all, a “recreational” drone recently landed on the White House lawn. President Obama said in response to this, “We don’t yet have the legal structures and the architecture both globally and within individual countries to manage them the way that we need to.” He said part of his job in his final two years in office “is seeing if we can start providing some sort of framework that ensures that we get the good and minimize the bad.”

I agree, Mr. President. And as part of developing that architecture, we must stop our lethal drone attacks, let the American people in on all we have done so far, and engage Americans in a vigorous debate to develop guidelines for the use of this technology going forward.

Image courtesy of Sergey Kamshylin / Shutterstock.com.

  • Martin Hughes

    What exactly is the immoral feature of drone attacks? I ask in good faith.