During the first five years of drone operations in Pakistan, Yemen and elsewhere, more than 2,400 people have died, and according to the most reliable estimates, the civilian casualty rate has been eight to seventeen percent. Earlier this year Obama told the New Yorker that he “wrestles” with civilian casualties, but, he said he has:
“a solemn duty and responsibility to keep the American people safe. That’s my most important obligation as President and Commander-in-Chief. And there are individuals and groups out there that are intent on killing Americans — killing American civilians, killing American children, blowing up American planes.”
So, presumably, the rationale for killing innocent foreign civilians is that this will save the lives of innocent American civilians, as doing nothing is equivalent to letting them die. Ignoring the morally indefensible view that Pakistani or Yemeni lives are somehow worth less than American lives, is it true that it’s better to kill some innocent persons so as not to let others die? Are killing someone and letting someone die, morally indistinguishable acts? Don’t we all “let” others die all the time, in the sense that there are countless persons around the world suffering from hunger, disease, exposure and malnutrition, whose deaths we could prevent by our efforts, if we chose to do so? Just because we let others die in this sense does not mean that it’s also permissible to kill them. Surely we have a greater obligation to refrain from killing innocent persons than we do to save them?
Imagine yourself as an innocent Pakistani civilian threatened with death by an American drone aimed at your terrorist neighbor. Now imagine yourself as an American civilian threatened with death by a terrorist. In both examples your right to live your life free of aggression is being violated, even if, in one case the aggressor is reputedly a good guy and in the other a bad guy. In both cases innocent lives are being sacrificed to achieve someone else’s ends, a morally repugnant outcome.
Of course this argument could be extended to prohibit far more than just killing by drones. If killing innocent people is wrong and the nature of modern urban warfare invariably leads to innocent civilian deaths, then engaging in modern urban warfare is also wrong. To forestall being buried in adverse comments I should add that I’m sure it’s possible for someone to come up with a valid justification for urban warfare that overrides the presumption against the killing of innocent persons, it’s just that I don’t ever recall having heard one. Maybe you have?
“…all I ask is that, in the midst of a murderous world, we agree to reflect on murder and to make a choice.” Albert Camus