Thursday, August 8, 2013

Democracy vs. Drones

I'm in Madison, WI, for the Democratizing Defense Conference. Later this morning we'll have a session on "Democracy vs. Drones."

Our "discussion of what is being done and what can be done to put the interests of humans ahead of those of killer flying robots" will include questions such as . . .
  • Can a democracy use drones abroad or domestically?
  • Do drone murders uphold the rule of law or destroy it?
  • Do surveillance drones make us free or strip away our rights?
  • Are false beliefs about drones leading us down a dangerous path?
  • How can we bring drones under control?
  • And is there any place for good or harmless uses of drones?
I hope that more and more people will begin asking these and other questions.

What would a truly democratic response to drones look like?

In the last year, we've seen a big change: a significant resistance has arisen against drones. (See for instance: April Days of Action Against Drones - 2013) Nonetheless, that resistance has been confined to a small segment of the American public. The vast majority of people are "out of sight, out of mind" when it comes to drones -- or any of our country's other military depredations, for that matter.

What's coming next is a more broad-based, democratic response. Here's what I think it will look like:

(1) Starting point: DENIAL

First and foremost, let's acknowledge the gravity of the problem we face as an antiwar movement. The vast majority of the American public is in denial about the violent aggression carried out in its name, and that's just the way the government likes it.

The U.S. government's drone strategy is a direct outgrowth of its defeat by the antiwar movement during the Vietnam War. At that time, the draft provoked a broad-based, democratic response which made it impossible for the government to conduct war unilaterally. You can just hear the voices in Washington, D.C., saying, "We're never going to let that happen again!"

Fast forward to today, when the government can carry out more and more of its acts of injury to others throughout the world without the involvement of a person, or without the physical presence of a person.

[UPDATE: This has now been stated in more formal language in the report of UN Special Rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions, Christof Heyns:
18. Given that drones greatly reduce or eliminate the number of casualties on the side using them, the domestic constraints — political and otherwise — may be less restrictive than with the deployment of other types of armed force. This effect is enhanced by the relative ease with which the details about drone targeting can be withheld from the public eye and the potentially restraining influence of public concern.
(See full 24-page report: Extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions)]

Most Americans have an attitude of, "Works for me!" . . . if they have any awareness at all of what's going on.

(2) The unforeseen sticking point

And yet . . . there is something about drone killings that arouses feelings in people. Often quite inchoate, part unease, part disgust, part a sense of injustice; unarticulated.

We see this clearly when we bring out large-scale drone replicas and use them in our discussions with people at protests and education events. There's something about being face to face with these things that just sticks in your craw.

No one could have predicted that drones would stimulate these kinds of emotions. It's not clear why drones do this in a way that many other forms of military activity do not. In any event, this is what we, as a movement, have to work with.

(3) The messy part

Now comes the messy part. We need many more people to engage with with the emotions aroused by drones. This is going to involve many different groups of people, engaging with this topic in many different ways. I've written frequently about my belief that drones are an important topic for churches and faith groups to take on. I expect young people will be reading and writing about this topic in their schools.

The point is: the discourse on drones is going to get out of our hands. It isn't always going to go the way we want. But the important thing is that many, many people are going to be talking about it in the ways that feel appropriate to them.


The really interesting part will be when the ultimate showdown comes. I don't think the American people are going to say to their government, "We don't like war by robot. Reinstate the draft." What I do think they are going to say is, "We don't like war by robot. We don't like the draft. The military activity of the U.S. government is just going to have to change."

In other words, the government and the military are going to have to respond to the unreasonable demands of the people.

(5) Post-drone defense

No one knows what the defense establishment is going to look like after we disallow the use of drones.

My hope is that, in the process, we will expose questions about why we are so expansionist and aggressive. My hope is that we will see a return the question, "What really would it mean to focus on "defense"?  How much -- really -- do we need to do to defend ourselves?"

I believe that we will recognize that, in fact, we can keep ourselves safe with a vastly reduced force.

And finally, I hope, we will dispense with all the rest.

Related posts

In my opinion, the reason to focus on drones is this: when we focus on drones, the general public is able to "get," to an unusual extent, the degree to which popular consent has been banished from the process of carrying out state violence. (Sure, it was banished long ago, but the absence of a human in the cockpit of a drone suddenly makes a light bulb go off in people's heads.) It takes some prodding, but people can sense that drone use somehow crosses a line. And that opens up the discussion about how our consent has been eliminated from the vast range of US militarism.

(See "Why focus on drone attacks?")

First Reps. Raúl M. Grijalva (D-AZ) and Keith Ellison (D-MN) called the U.S. on the carpet for dodging the call from the international community to come clean about its drone killings. Then Reps. Adam Schiff (D-CA) and Walter Jones (R-NC) submitted a bill calling for drone transparency. So ... are we finally going to get the truth?

(See REAL Progressives Demand that the U.S. Come Clean on Drone Killings)

In the past several weeks, the President of the United States tried to undertake an attack against a foreign country, but the American people said "Hell no!" and the Congress let the President know they couldn't support it. How often does that happen?

(See When THE PEOPLE Take Control: "Anything Can Happen")