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Thomas Nagel on the ethics of drones


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In the just-released March issue of the London Review of Books, philosopher Thomas Nagel reviews the book Objective Troy: A Terrorist, a President and the Rise of the Drone by Scott Shane, an in-depth account of the historical events and political decisions that led to the US to send a drone to Yemen on September 30, 2011 to kill suspected terrorist and US citizen Anwar al-Awlaki. Nagel reflects on why people have such strong ethical objections to drone warfare, even though, as he writes, drones “are more selective in the killing of enemies, produce less collateral damage to non-combatants and impose no physical risk to those who pilot them, since they are sitting in a control station thousands of miles away.” Nagel contiues:

The president as killer is a chilling new face of the role of commander-in-chief. I suspect that it is the personal, individualised nature of drone warfare that many people find so repellent. It is easier to be resigned to the slaughter of faceless multitudes by conventional missiles, bombs and artillery, with the inevitable attendant collateral damage, in pursuit of legitimate military objectives. War is hell, as we all know. But when the president puts someone on a kill list to be taken out by a precise drone strike, it creates the illusory sense of a more direct responsibility for that death than for the other kind. It feels like an execution, though it is just retail warfare, and the responsibility, individual and collective, is equally great in both cases.

Does it make a moral difference that this kind of killing exposes the killers to no physical risk? Is it a condition on the acceptability of warfare that those who kill should put their lives on the line? That has an emotional plausibility, but it comes from an image of the warrior that applies only selectively. Those who launch missiles or drop bombs are of course legitimate military targets, but often the capacities of the belligerent parties are so asymmetrical that the more powerful of them are in practical terms exempt from risk.