Philadelphia Inquirer – February 28, 2013
Reading Woodrow Wilson’s 1917 war message to Congress in our American history class reminded my students and me of the ongoing debate over the use of drones by the American government to target suspected terrorists.
In the early 20th century, submarines were useful primarily as hit-and-run weapons. They would sneak up on much bigger ships and hope to remain undetected long enough to launch a torpedo or two and get away. In his speech to Congress, the president expressed his outrage at the German government’s policy of using submarines to sink any vessels (many carried passengers and cargo) headed for British or other Allied ports, labeling it “warfare against mankind.”
Wilson rejected Germany’s claims that it had no way to cut off trade to its enemies except by using submarines, which, he said, are “impossible to employ … without throwing to the winds all scruples of humanity.” His view was that the Germans were ignoring the rules of war. There was no opportunity for the ships attacked to surrender before they were sunk, no way for the submarines to rescue survivors, and no distinction made between combatants and innocent civilians.
“I am not now thinking of the loss of property involved,” the president went on, “but only of the wanton and wholesale destruction of the lives of noncombatants, men, women, and children, engaged in pursuits which have always, even in the darkest periods of modern history, been deemed innocent and legitimate.”
The drones at the center of the current controversy are small, unmanned aircraft. Like their World War I counterparts, they rely upon stealth and surprise. Undetectable from the ground, they seek out their objectives and strike with air-to-surface missiles. The suspected terrorists they target are simply executed. There is no opportunity for negotiation or surrender and, in many cases, noncombatants die, too.
Defenders of the program say that the United States is at war with al-Qaeda, and drones play an essential role in the fight against a stateless, terrorist organization whose operatives conceal themselves among civilians in multiple countries. Drones are effective, as were the early submarines, which explains at least some of Wilson’s righteous indignation.
If a weapon works, at least in the limited sense of destroying its target, does that necessarily justify its use? Wilson didn’t think so. He suggested that America’s conduct in war would be governed by a different set of standards than those of the German empire. The goal of U.S. entry into the Great War, the president said, was to “make the world safe for democracy,” and by means that were consistent with our principles.
To my students, the practice of “targeted killing” seemed to conflict with the constitutional separation of powers. The executive branch identifies suspects, determines guilt, imposes a sentence, and uses drones to carry it out. The lack of due process also attracted their notice. Even those held at Guantanamo as enemy combatants have been accorded protection under the Geneva Convention, and some have been brought before military tribunals.
Osama bin Laden was tracked down and killed (not by a drone) for orchestrating the 9/11 attacks. My class and I had some difficulty determining whether those on the drone lists are targeted only for what they have done or for what they might do. And that distinction seemed important.
Some of my students will be eighteen in November, and the rest by 2014. They have already spent more time than most of their fellow citizens discussing our government’s use of drones, but remain divided about how to proceed. As voters they will often be reminded that securing our own safety and making the world safe for democracy can never be entirely compatible goals.