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Viewpoint: Death by drone

BY ERIC FERGUSON

Published February 18, 2013

Near the end of an episode of “Law and Order: Special Victims Unit,” a court rules against the wishes of police and parents, allowing 17-year-old Janey to live with her lover Greg, 13 years her senior. After the show’s protagonist meets his new crime-fighting partner by informing her that she can’t arrest Greg for kissing Janey, who appears a lot younger than she is due to Turner’s syndrome, he offers up a cynical greeting: “Welcome to the world of grey.”

“50 Shades” jokes and the context of a show about victims of sexual violence notwithstanding, this phrase lodged itself into my head two years ago and I haven’t yet been able to get it out. For those of you who are unfortunate enough to have never watched this episode of SVU, Stabler’s line rejects the notion that the courts and the law can always divide the world into things that are “right” and things that are “wrong.” It asserts what should be fairly obvious to those interested in American politics, particularly small-government advocates: laws, policies and court decisions inevitably conflict at times with group or individual concepts of morality, despite government’s best intentions.

There’s no shortage of examples of policies fitting this description: Consider the contraceptive provision in the Affordable Care Act, or the practice of reducing the charges filed against suspects who testify against those accused of more heinous crimes. Though some oppose it based on their religious beliefs, the ACA provision provides needed coverage to women in need, and incentivizing criminals to squeal on other criminals can be an essential component of a successful conviction. Given recent media coverage of a memo outlining President Barack Obama's administration’s legal rationale behind its drone assassinations of terrorists abroad who are also U.S. citizens, some might think that the use of drones in the global “war on terror” is one of these “grey” issues — one that leaves a bad taste in the mouth, but that is nonetheless lawful and necessary. Those people would be wrong.

Proponents of the drone program argue that it has been effective in enhancing national security. CIA director nominee John Brennan, whose position as chief counterterrorism adviser to the president made him a central figure in the drone program, also claimed in 2011 that it was achieving its goals “(without) a single collateral death.” But this rosy claim, along with the program’s supposed effectiveness in increasing security, doesn’t hold up to scrutiny. The Bureau of Investigative Journalism has reported that the drone program has killed thousands of civilians in at least three different countries since its inception in 2001. The number of civilian (and militant) deaths is especially hard to measure because of the administration’s policy of counting all “military-aged” males in a strike zone as militants, and there is evidence that the civilian deaths caused by drone strikes have become a major recruiting tool for Al Qaeda. Finally, the program’s targeting of U.S. citizens and the administration’s repeated denial of requests for information about the program from members of Congress raise deep concern and questions about the program’s constitutionality and the abuse of presidential power.

The way the program has been conducted shows that the administration has treated the law and judicial oversight as inevitable roadkill on the path to a terror-free world. In spite of this, some may still find it tempting to dismiss the drone war as just a controversial policy that is nonetheless necessary to maintain the safety of the United States — that poor oversight and civilian deaths are inevitable in this world of grey. Obama himself seems to agree with that assertion. But taking a closer look at the program shows that this world’s moral landscape isn’t just a washed-out mess: When some issues are brought into focus and adjusted for contrast, they’re revealed to be fundamentally wrong. No matter how hard the president, his likely CIA director and others try to justify it, the drone program is morally repugnant and doubtfully effective. It cannot be allowed to persist. Without some kind of outcry against the program from the public, the courts and lawmakers, there’s an excellent chance that the continued use of drones will end up hurting U.S. national security in the long run and result in even more innocent lives obliterated by drone strikes.

Eric Ferguson is an LSA sophomore.


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