Today, TransEx guest blogger Robert Prasch weighs in on the moral debate over the ethics of US-led drone strikes and “unintended” casualties. He offers a provocative analogy that sheds some insight on the rhetoric of collateral damage.
By Robert E. Prasch
The devastating massacre that took place a few short weeks ago in Newtown moved hearts across the world. It also rekindled several debates, one of which had to do with the contrast between the West’s – fully understandable — horror at the mass death of children in Newtown, and the striking absence of an emotional response to the deaths of children “mistakenly” killed in U.S.-directed drone strikes. This debate has received a significant amount of attention in the blogosphere, and less attention in the overseas press. It has not been taken up at all by the United States mainstream press. Moreover, in contrast to gun control, no major political party is interested in curtailing the United States’ several drone wars, despite its highly dubious ethical and legal foundations.
This debate turns, then, on how we in the West perceive the violent deaths of these non-Western children. Two possible answers emerge. The first is to maintain that “their” children simply aren’t worth that much anyway. Hence, their deaths are insufficient grounds for concern. It is a racist perspective, but it is consistent. The second answer agrees that the violent death of any child, anywhere, is an equally terrible tragedy, as Falguni Sheth and Glenn Greenwald have argued. Yet, many holding this view also contend that while they would agree that a tragedy occurred in Newtown, a similar moral status should not be ascribed to the many children who are the “accidental” casualties—even when these are the routine and predictable consequence of drone strikes. To this line of thinking, the perception that a tragedy has occurred must turn upon the context of the death of the child and the motivation behind the killing. The mere fact that one or more children have died by violence is insufficient to establish that a tragedy has occurred. Consequently, the name ‘Adam Lanza’ is reviled for being the perpetrator of the Newtown massacre, but to suggest anything even remotely like a similar condemnation of the 2009 Nobel Peace Prize Laureate is to associate oneself with a “lunatic fringe.” Why is that?
The oft-repeated answer is that Adam Lanza intended to massacre children, whereas the approximately 200 children killed by President Barack Obama’s predator drone strikes were inadvertent. In the military parlance that has been all-too-willingly adopted in this country, the latter were collateral damage (even when the term does not legally describe CIA-led drone strikes). This answer suggests that the mere fact of a child’s death should have little relevance in our evaluation of the ethics of an action taken if killing a child was not the set priority of the person taking that action. It just happened. Bummer.
As an aside, I would, like to believe that even those who support the predator drone program might want the president to apologize, or at least offer condolences, to the families who have lost children in these strikes (Please do not tell me that he has not done so because the program is “secret.” Most people living outside the US know exactly which government is organizing and executing these attacks).
Let’s return to the ethical calculation implicit in the ascription of the deaths of 200 children to collateral damage: To highlight the salient characteristics, I will draw upon an analogy: the decision to use a pharmaceutical drug. We have all been exposed to the advertising of drugs that – we are told — can cure one or more ailments. We are also aware that each drug advertisement concludes with a list of warnings about known “side-effects.” However, as a matter of simple biology, drugs do not have “side-effects.” They only have “effects.” Calling the positive outcomes “effects,” and the bad outcomes “side effects,” is simply a spin by the drug manufacturer’s marketing department that is designed to appeal to our hopes of a positive result.
In an organism as complex as the human body, the effects of a drug are probabilistic. That is to say that, after an adequate number of clinical trials, researchers can acquire a defensible estimate that a given drug–let us call it N–will have the effects A, B, and C, with the probabilities x, y, and z. Let us suppose that effect A, which occurs with probability x, is a highly desirable outcome. Perhaps it can save a patient from death by heart disease. However, as mature and informed adults, we also understand that if drug N is used often enough, by enough people, the undesirable effects B and C will occur with probabilities y and z. This latter reality is the basis for the government-mandated warnings on TV (Obviously, any given person using N might be “lucky” and only experience A, or they might be “unlucky” and only experience B and C without the benefit of A occurring).
Every society and adult considering the use of N must weigh the benefit of A, subject to the probability of it occurring, against the risk-adjusted damage to society and ourselves that may be anticipated in the event that B and/or C occurs. In some cases, such as curing a heart condition, we may calculate that the risk is worth taking. But what if A is simply a cure for teenage acne? We may decide that the risks outweigh the benefits, although we can be sure that teenagers, famously known for undervaluing risks, will protest.
Drawing upon the above, let us return to the matter of missiles launched by predator drones into someone else’s country. Even if we assume (although we have little reason to do so) that such strikes support good outcomes, it’s still the case that – as with the drug described above – the destruction wreaked by these missiles cannot be nicely codified into intended targets (good) and collateral damage (bad). On the contrary, they destroy everything and everyone around them upon detonation. Period. In a manner parallel to a drug company’s sales pitch, the U.S. government classifies some deaths as “good” if it exclusively kills “targeted terrorists” (how this term has come to encompass all military age males has been much discussed by others). Anyone else killed, whether a group en route to a wedding party or children who happened to be nearby, are subject to a cover-up or labeled “collateral damage.”
The difficulty with this naïve classification is that we now – for better or worse — have observed an enormous number of missile strikes, so we have a good idea of the likely distribution of effects. Even if we accept the government’s own classification which, as we know, is overwhelmingly biased against concluding that innocents died (again, assuming that the government has legitimate grounds to conduct these attacks), then we must acknowledge that those ordering further attacks have found the death rate of innocent persons and other people’s children to be within the zone of predictable but tolerable outcomes. Why tolerable? Because we have enough information to estimate the rate of innocent deaths to be expected per-missile-launched and the program is still continuing. It follows that such a calculation has been made, if only implicitly, and the calculus – at least to those making the decision – has been found to be within an acceptable range.
I also want to highlight an important disanalogy with the pharmacological example given above. If I decide to ingest drug N in the hopes of effect A, but end up suffering from results B and C, the decision and its consequences all accrue to me and those who care about me. A most notable quality of the drone program is that its benefits (if any) accrue almost exclusively to Americans, while the associated costs and risks (which are known to be substantial) are being borne almost exclusively by “Foreign Others.” Moreover, it is not a stretch to suppose that these latter persons may not wish to live every minute of every day worrying about the chances that someone very far away – oops! – mistook the “disposition” of themselves or their loved ones to be correlated with actual or potential hostility towards a faraway nation. (Also neglected by the Administration and the mainstream media is any consideration that the hostility of the communities being bombed may grow in tandem with the size and duration of this missile program).
In light of the above, American citizens have a right to know the explicit or implicit formula that validates the “costs” of killing a certain number of other people’s children per-missile-launched as weighed against the (presumptive) “benefits” of killing a certain number of persons who have exhibited a subset of the as-yet-still-secret “dispositions.” The contours of this calculus are something that should be, at a minimum, the subject of a substantial public discussion and full accounting by the highest echelons of our government. Are four persons of “bad disposition” worth the life of one innocent child? Is the break-even number six? Perhaps it is ten? We are entitled to this answer and its underlying logic.
3 thoughts on “The Deaths of Innocents: How to Understand “Collateral Damage””
I like your piece a lot. Its conclusion, however, troubles me. Professor Sheth’s previous post of December 28 and even your own arguments point to my troubles.
Let’s take a hypothetical South American leader who commands just as much technology and weaponry as does Obama. Having the same kind of evidence at her disposal as he, she reasonably concludes that the School of the Americas at Fort Benning trains Latin Americans with bad dispositions to return to their countries to terrorize and murder their own people. She wants to close the school and bring all responsible people to justice, including the U.S. chairperson of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. Nevertheless, she also reasonably concludes that sending a force to the United States to arrest anyone would be futile; her force might encounter some hostility. As a result, she resorts to her arsenal of drone missiles. On bad intelligence, she strikes in the state of Georgia, hoping to hit a notorious Colombian officer. Unfortunately, she, as Obama did in Yemen in 2009, fires cluster bombs—weapons that most of the world wants banned—and instead of hitting the officer, she, again as Obama did, slaughters twenty-one women and fourteen children. Undeterred, she hatches another plan, one to hit the chairperson of the Joint Chiefs. To lure him into the open, she first targets the U.S. commander at Fort Benning. She hits him, other officers, and civilians. Inspired by U.S. tactics, she immediately fires another missile—the U.S. double-tap tactic—at anyone who might come to the commander’s aid. She kills more officers and civilians. Her endgame, again inspired by Obama’s work, this time in Pakistan in 2009, now kicks in. Hoping that the chairperson will attend the funeral, she targets the ceremony at Fort Benning, killing over sixty people, including children.
In this scenario, U.S. citizens might understandably be hard-pressed to see the distinction between a person who intends to kill children and a South American leader who inadvertently does. But even if they conceded such a distinction, their grief and moral outrage would violently render it moot. Their hypocrisy notwithstanding, they would be absolutely right to reject and condemn any discussion by the South American government about a calculus of children’s deaths. Such a discussion presupposes a moral and legal use of violence, something, in my opinion, our South American leader and Obama have no right to claim.
Thanks for your piece; I so much benefit from this blog,
Thanks for your comment. I was making a narrower point referring to the way that some persons have framed the ethics of children dying in drone attacks. At several points in the above piece, I tried to signal my doubts about the entire policy . For the record, I fully agree with your point.
You write and argue so well, you successfully signaled your doubts. That’s why your conclusion confused me. Perhaps my misreading.
At any rate, thanks again,
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