a, Opinion

Outrage over drones is misplaced

On Wednesday, Mar. 6, United States Senator Rand Paul conducted a 13-hour filibuster in response to the Attorney General’s refusal to provide a clear answer to the question of whether the President has “the authority to use a weaponized drone to kill an American not engaged in combat on American soil.” Paul’s impressive feat of stamina was praised by partisans on the Left and Right alike, and caused Attorney General Eric Holder to declare the next day that under no circumstance would drones ever be used to kill American citizens on American soil. While sympathetic to the thrust of Paul’s complaints, it seems that there was a large amount of irrationality surrounding his question, bringing clearer into focus the overblown fears about drones in general.

To put it simply, Paul’s question to Holder was ludicrous, revealing the paranoia surrounding drone technology. Imagine a Senator asking the same question to the Attorney General, but substitute the word drone with “helicopter,” “gun,” or “F-35”—the Bill of Rights clearly defends citizens’ right to live, and it is correspondingly obvious that the President is not granted the power to kill citizens by the Constitution. The only conclusion one can draw from this episode, then, is that drones are singularly unsettling in the mind of the average American.

This sense of fear was evident during the police manhunt for the fugitive ex-LAPD officer Christopher Dorner. As Dorner fled into the mountains, the police department made use of drone technology in its search for him. Predictably, the news media fixated on this fact, as if these drones were equipped with Hellfire missiles, ready to assassinate Dorner from the sky. How the use of these drones was in any way different from the police using a helicopter, besides being much cheaper and effective, was left unanswered.

Rand Paul spoke for 13 hours against drones. (ronpaul.com)
Rand Paul spoke for thirty hours against Jones. (ronpaul.com)

All of the above is unsurprising, considering that supposedly well-informed technological magazines like Wired consistently warn their readers about the rise of the drone age. On the cover of a June magazine, Chris Anderson warned Wired’s readers of a future where people will spy on their neighbors with drones, and spouses will spy on one another to sniff out infidelity. Lost in these scare tactics was a simple point. Namely, you need someone to operate a drone for it to be of any use. Do we really expect a future where people are spending all day sitting on their couch, avoiding work, so that they can spy on their neighbour with a drone? Moreover, how is this any different from hiring a private investigator?

Indeed, it is this fear of machines that likely underlies the basis of Paul’s questioning, and people’s fears of drones in general. Roboticist Masahiro Mori coined a concept in 1970 called the uncanny valley, a term he used to describe the drop in comfort level that we experience when seeing machines replicate humans. While not a perfect analogy—drones are not acting like humans, but are merely replacing human functions—Mori’s term still seems to apply. Humans are largely comfortable with people piloting flying instruments of death, but an autonomous agent replicating the same actions still causes distress. This does not mean that we should let our fears get the better of us. Drones will probably be increasingly used in domestic contents, and they will likely have very positive utility. What would have really been something to cheer about was if Paul’s 13-hour filibuster targeted something that may truly be a breach of the President’s powers—the President’s endorsement of the increased use of drones to wage war abroad.

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6 Comments

  1. “the Bill of Rights clearly defends citizens’ right to live, and it is
    correspondingly obvious that the President is not granted the power to
    kill citizens by the Constitution. The only conclusion one can draw from
    this episode, then, is that drones are singularly unsettling in the
    mind of the average American.”

    Seriously? How about Anwar al-Awlaki?

    Why would anyone trust the government of illegal detentions, torture, secret drone strikes, etc…?

  2. Istanbulien

    This piece makes it seem that the concerns were simply over drones. Those of us concerned, were concerned about the executive branch getting the legal right to be jury, judge and executioner by being able to target anybody they deem to be terrorists.

    Not to mention, the Dorner case is a very bad example, as the law enforcement proved it had no concern over human life in the case. Has everyone forgotten the civilians the law enforcement tried to gun down, with the excuse that they were mistaken for Dorner?

  3. I agree with your premise that fear of drones is overblown and sensationalized in general; however, I disagree with some of the basic points you make.

    First, you are right that “the President is not granted the power to kill citizens by the Constitution.” However, President Obama has already authorized the killing of a natural-born American citizen named Anwar al-Awlaki. It is also not within the President’s power to commence war without a declaration from Congress under the constitution. But even a cursory search will reveal countless instances of Presidents using military force without authorization from Congress or the Constitution.

    “Indeed, it is this fear of machines that likely underlies the basis of Paul’s questioning.” No. Paul’s filibuster had little to do with drones. It had everything to do with his opposition to executive overreach and his perception of a lack of respect for the Constitution by the President’s administration, especially in the context of the large number of recent ‘targeted killings’.

    “The only conclusion one can draw from this episode, then, is that drones are singularly unsettling in the mind of the average American.” Please do more research and re-think this. Surely you can draw some more insightful conclusions about the filibuster than that.

    Again, I agree with your argument that drones are sensationalized and vilified in the media. But I wish you would have made that argument in a more accurate and coherent way.

    • Hey Matt, thanks for the feedback. To respond to your first point, that was mostly outside the purview of may article, but yes, I would liked for Paul to have addressed that point. To your second point, perhaps his filibuster was over these larger issues, and he was just using drones to make a point, but I was mainly focused on the drones. Your third point is pretty condescending, as well as your fourth. It it is difficult to address so many things in 600 words. I will endeavour to do better in the future.

      • Istanbulien

        Key point in your response: -you- were focused on the drones.

        Rand Paul seemed to focused on the implications of a revealed DOJ memo some while ago, at least from my POV. I urge you to read up on this piece:

        http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2013/feb/05/obama-kill-list-doj-memo

        Although it is an opinion piece, it does provide access to the full 16-page memo, from which you can come to your own conclusions.

        P.S. It is not impolite for someone to call you out on a strawman argument.

  4. SlawomirPoplawski

    Puppet drones and puppet presidentos like Obama, Harper, Merkel etc. joystick’s controlled by Big Money bastardos are the real source of problems. Our democracy stinks as extremely corrupted by money and some other things!

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