The Terror of Drones

Conor Friedersdorf summarizes a recent report on the consequences of U.S. drone strikes in the tribal areas of Pakistan.  While one occasionally hears about nameless dead innocents, the full terror caused by these drones hasn’t entered the national consciousness.  Americans may never forget the horror of 9/11 and the heroic responses to it, but we’re largely oblivious to the daily fear innocent people experience because of our nation’s drone program.

Mothers, fathers, and their children shut their eyes and cover their ears at the sound of drones.  People awaken in the night screaming from nightmares.  Children regularly cry in fear, and some are pulled from school.  Everyone suffers perpetual stress, under unceasing worry that a person next to them at the market or at a mosque is a target.  They’re fearful of attending funerals or even their neighbor’s home, and they avoid doing so.

This is terror.  There’s no better word for it.  And this is terror inflicted by the United States of America, by President Obama. Unintended terror is no less real to the people terrorized.  For the most part, it isn’t real to us fortunate citizens supposedly kept safe by the drones, a sign we’re not as morally upstanding as we like to believe we are.

Update: See also Ned Resnikoff’s writeup on the report.

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Kyle Cupp

Kyle Cupp is a freelance writer who blogs about culture, philosophy, politics, postmodernism, and religion. He is a contributor to the group Catholic blog Vox Nova. Kyle lives with his wife, son, and daughter in North Texas. Follow him on Facebook and Twitter.

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21 Responses

  1. Rodak says:

    Who was the fool who EVER thought we were “morally upstanding?” Please! Give me a break!

  2. When it was announced that American born cleric Anwar al Awlaki was killed by a drone attack I began to develop some concern, not only for the use of drones in “warfare”, but how the rules of engagement were being developed. Anwar al Awlaki was an American Citizen – for this reason I believe the implications of drone warfare (on US citizens without need for due process) may become problematic as utilization of drones becomes more widespread for the purposes of “keeping us safe”. The mantra has already begun – its chapter and safe. I would argue against those conclusions.

    First, POTUS has already relaxed the rules of engagement in relation to the drone campaign. Not only are they targeting terrorists on the Kill List (which has no independent oversight) but they have stated that anyone suspected of being a terrorist can be targeted even before they have verified the suspects identity.

    Second, the military is wondering what to do with all the drones after the wars come to a close. The government has already stated that cities & states will use them for law enforcement. However, how do the civil authorities protect individuals privacy as the drones collect data during routine surveillance over a particular area of the city or town in which you live? They promise to protect our civil liberties and have already released guidelines for drone activity over US cities – the subject of several articles I have seen.

    Finally, the NDAA 2012 widens the War on Terrorism to the United States. Therefore, I believe drone surveillance and warfare is already a forgone conclusion. Someday we will be pulling our kids out of school and praying at night that we are not the targets. Especially – people of faith (who are already prone towards radicalism).

    • Nob Akimoto says:

      Anwar al Awlaki was an American Citizen (In Yemen, purposefully hiding from US authorities and well known to be a material supporter of Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula)

      The fact, as inconvenient as it may be, is the simple truth. If al-Awlaki wished to avail himself to protection he could simply have turned himself into any US consulate or embassy and at that point he would’ve been safe from any number of things, including drones and targeted killing. He chose, purposefully, to gamble that he could do what he wants by being out in no man’s land, waging war on his country of citizenship.

      As for the NDAA nonsense:

      It’s not a great law, but the sheer amount of pablum and bullshit spread around about it is perplexing.

      • James Hanley says:


        The NDAA does indeed broaden the war on terror, and President Obama has been publicly very duplicitous about it. The language of Section 1021 of NDAA expands the range of persons who may be detained without due process to include anyone who “substantially supported” either Taliban or al Qaeda or “associated forces.” “Substantial support” is undefined, and so probably is unconstitutionally vague (see the ruling of the Federal District Court for the Southern District of New York, from just a couple of weeks ago). And of course no standards of evidence are required for determining whether someone “substantially supported” any terrorist organization or associated forces.

        NDAA mandates the indefinite detention of suspects who are non-citizen legal residents and allows the indefinite detention of suspect U.S. citizens.

        Anyone interested in my overly wordy take on NDAA, including the evidence that the Obama administration itself insisted on the authority to indefinitely detain U.S. citizens can find it here.

      • @Nob Akimoto –

        First, there is no simple truth regarding this issue. Second, his unwillingness to turn himself in or even some kind of verbal rejection of citizenship should not inhibit us from doing what is right – no matter the difficulty. Third, there is NO NDAA nonsense.

        The war is widening, it will affect Americans on American soil (& has the potential to really challenge the Constitution + Civil Liberties of free people), drones will be used by civil authorities in the air above American cities collecting and storing information – that is what drones do (besides killing), and we will see a continued slow erosion of Constitutional protections – all in the name of the War on Terror.

        Finally, the real problem is trigger happy reactionaries who do not want to think about the implications of our actions abroad and here at home. We desperately want to think that we are consistently on the high road in every decision. The truth: we all make mistakes and even in our own best efforts the US Government with the consent of the people make some really bad decisions.

        For me – I will try and think about the issues rather than just reacting.

  3. DensityDuck says:

    Clinton used drones for assassination attempts long before Obama (or Bush) did. Describe a cruise missile as a “one-way suicide drone” and you’ll see that there is, really, no difference between the two.

    Which means that drones are not some terrifying new development. They’ve existed since the 1940s.

    • Kazzy says:


      For me, the issue isn’t that drones are being used. I’m already on record that I think at least SOME of the outrage over them is based on the “AHH! ROBOTS!” thing. It is the way in which we are communicating, or not, about our actions.

      During war, people die. Often innocent people die. Whether they are killed by a scud missile or a drone, they’re still dead. Mind you, this is no moral justification of any particular action; just an acknowledgement of reality.

      The problem is… ask most Americans if we are at war with the countries we are flying drones into and they’ll say no. Ask most Americans if we are killing innocents and wreaking havoc and terror on civilian populations through the use of our drones and they’ll say no.

      If we are going to engage in acts of war, and a drone strike is no less an act of war than a scud missile, we can’t pretend we’re not.

  4. BlaiseP says:

    “It is well that war is so terrible. We should grow too fond of it.” – Robert E. Lee.

    With the rise of every new weapons system arises also a crowd of naysayers and hand-wringers who feel it’s just the worst thing to ever come over the horizon. The world has grown too small to tolerate entities like the Taliban and Al Shabaab. They must be pursued to the ends of the earth and destroyed.

    The opposite of love is not hatred but indifference. For far too long, we’ve allowed the likes of Al Qaeda and the Taliban and Al Shabaab and Jemaa Islamiya and the Lord’s Resistance Army and Sendero Luminoso and a hundred other such groups to go unmolested, beyond the reach of any justice. They retreat into the hills, they oppress the people, they extort and rob and murder their way to power through the destruction of organic leadership structures. We are not only entitled to attack such groups by any means necessary, we advance the rule of law thereby. Our indifference to the suffering of these people at the hands of such groups in the past has allowed them to create festering ulcers upon a suffering world.

    In every such country, be it Pakistan, Yemen, the Sudan, the drone has proven a tireless workhorse, patrolling vast swaths of otherwise inaccessible terrain. Those who would decry their use should see what happens at ground level when banditry and warlord-ism is the order of business. Drone terror, my ass. When women are held down and beaten in the streets by two-bit khat-addled maniacs, acting in the name of The Almighty, when girls’ schools are dynamited and their teachers murdered, if that’s not living in terror, what is?

    The opposite of love is not hatred, but indifference. The drone bears witness to what happens below. If it drives these murderous jackasses farther into the hills, this can be nothing but a positive development in the history of mankind.

    • Fnord says:

      That same quote shows the danger when war is not terrible for one side. The drone warfare isn’t terrible for the people of the United States. And it it seems that we’ve grown rather fond. To focus on the drones themselves is wrong, of course, as you point out. It’s the policy, not the specific means.

      • BlaiseP says:

        Well yes. Sanitary war is also a contradiction in terms. But there’s something far more terrible. Americans continue to delude themselves into believing there’s a cordon sanitaire between Real War, where GI Joe goes out there and fights — and the reality of warfare, where all rule of law has collapsed and fighting resolves to a question of Who Stays and Who Leaves the contested ground.

        Inter arma silent leges.

        How much of this anarchic Islamist nonsense are we going to tolerate as a species before we put an end to it? That’s an open question.

  5. Rodak says:

    @BlaiseP — To successfully implement a no tolerance policy against Islamist anarchic proliferation, what course of action would you prescribe? How could total victory be achieved?

    • BlaiseP says:

      Four words.

      The education of women.

      • Rodak says:

        Is there some evidence that nations or cultures where women are educated somehow become more pacific and self-contained than nations where they do not? I don’t see it.

        • BlaiseP says:

          Sure. Long ago, I had a hand in a study comparing the culture of Kerala on the western coast of India to a similar culture in China. Both grow rice in terraced paddies. As such, both understood communal labour: water is pumped from one paddy to the next up the hillside. Kerala returned Communists to the Indian parliament for many years.

          One big difference: China only educated its girls for six to eight years. Kerala educated them for 12 years. Kerala’s population dropped and its standard of living dramatically increased. Women became prized as suitable marriage partners on the basis of education and earning potential and became much more choosy in their choice of husbands.

          Education of girls is crucial. So many aspects of a respectable, law-abiding culture depend upon the equality of women. Show me a barbaric, warlike culture which despises scientific education and I’ll show you a misogynistic culture, without exception.

        • GordonHide says:

          Blaise is right. But I might add the empowerment of women also. Empowerment does not necessarily follow education. Any third world country which achieves both can say goodby to most of its other problems.

      • Kazzy says:

        “Four words.

        The education of women.”

        And I believe I read a study somewhere that the adoption of cable TV has a huge positive impact on the rates of education for women. So let’s just start beaming all those countries episodes of “Two and a Half Men”.

        Problem solved, right?

  6. Rodak says:

    “Show me a barbaric, warlike culture which despises scientific education and I’ll show you a misogynistic culture, without exception.”

    I think that all you’re saying there is that primitive cultures tend to be “misogynistic.” I don’t know that I would characterize any of the world powers of the past two centuries, in all of which women of the upper classes were educated, as peaceful. Hillary Clinton lost the nomination to Obama in 2008 largely because she was seen as more hawkish than he was. Pakistan, not exactly a peaceful land, has had a woman head of state, though Islamic.

    • BlaiseP says:

      You’re reversed the premises. Not all primitive cultures are misogynistic. Nor are all advanced cultures are paragons of equality. But it does seem fair to observe the fact that the current crop of warlike barbarians are misogynists.

      As for Benazir Bhutto, you have chosen rather unwisely. Who murdered her? That would be the aforementioned misogynistic barbarians.

      • Rodak says:

        I was merely pointing out that there is no consistent corollary to be drawn from the fact that Islam places women in a place inferior to men. So does Christianity. So does Judaism. The conflict is much more complicated by geopolitics and by differences in degree of modernization and concomitant secularization than anything that can be solved simply by “the education of women.” Societies in which women are educated are still spawning “Islamists.” Oppression and exploitation in the region by Western powers since the fall of the Ottomans is the prime mover in the asymmetrical war now being waged against the U.S. and its allies. I submit the probability that more college-educated women in a region like Afghanistan would merely produce anti-Western, leftist radicals of the female persuasion. The educated females in Israel have done little to quell the often brutal suppression/oppression of the Palestinians.

  7. GordonHide says:

    I guess the first people to suffer drone attacks were we Londoners. Certainly these attacks do inspire terror but you can get used to anything. V1 and V2 attacks on London, because they weren’t hugely effective, in the end only served to increase the resolve of the British to defeat their enemy. At the time the British were already delivering a far greater tonnage of bombs on German cities.

    A word on the “terror” aspects. All military commanders have always endeavoured to inculcate fear in their enemies. You should avoid being seduced by the current Western trend of branding all their enemies as terrorists.

    In the end peace must come. So one should limit the barbarism that one stoops to in the interests of peace without resentment if possible. Otherwise the creation of fear amongst one’s enemies is a useful military tactic.

    I would guess that V2 attacks were more terrifying than modern drones because they were much more indiscriminate. (We didn’t move to London until 1948).

    • James Hanley says:

      To nitpick (and no more) the bombing attacks on London were strategic, intended to break the will of the public (which, of course, was a failure) and so hasten their desire to capitulate. Our drone attacks are tactical, designed only to put an end to their immediate target.