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An Appeal to Conscience: Opposing the Expansion of the US Drone War

The level of drone killing is soaring as drones are integrated into an air war strategy.

I have been thinking over the last month about what might be worth saying at this time when our work to stop drone killing and surveillance has been met with the announcement that the United States government intends to expand its drone program. And almost certainly the level of drone killing – assassination – is soaring as drones are integrated into an air war strategy that appears to be limitless in its intensity, geography and willingness to pummel defenseless, poor people into fleshy pulp and terror, with those left living attempting to scratch out survival amidst rubble and unsustainable communities (see this video, starting at 0:32).

On Meet the Press, October 15, 2015 Chuck Todd asked Bernie Sanders: “…you’re comfortable with using drones if you think you’ve isolated an important terrorist?” Sanders said “Yes” as part of a longer exchange in which he endorsed the Obama war practices and said that, if elected president, he would do this and more, with the qualification that the blood being spilled should be largely Arab. (This exchange begins at 13:37 in this interview.)


But in this interview there is also a note of real hope with respect to drone war because, for whatever reason, Todd chose to be very specific in asking Sanders about whether drone war is OK. And, earlier this week I was listening to the Midday Briefing on the POTUS satellite radio channel, and anchorman Tim Farley said the question of drone “assassination” is one that needs to be addressed although there was not time to do it during that particular program.

The point is that the legality and morality of drone war is by no means a settled issue in the mind of the U.S. press and possibly a significant number of the American people. Drone war is seen as war by assassination, killing without due process based on relentless stalking of thousands of people. There is a moral stench to this that no amount of official talk can blow away.

To this point, in a remarkable presentation a year ago at a drone conference at Princeton Theological Seminary, former Congressman Rush Holt spoke of drone war as assassination, and he sketched out the ethos that supports it and some of its inescapable moral implications. (See this video, starting at 1:13:05, which includes an introduction of Holt by the Rev. Robert More, Executive Director of the Peace Action Education Fund.)


The moral stench of drone assassination is of broad significance, of course, because drone assassination is so central to the Obama “targeted killing” war strategy that involves the use of special operations forces as well as drones. Niall Ferguson, an historian and geopolitical analyst of some renown, who advocates increasing US military strength, surprisingly said the following about Obama’s war strategy in an interview in Barron’s newspaper, published December 28, 2015:

“The resources that go into producing radicalism aren’t about to disappear. Networks are difficult to decapitate.

“The president (Obama) has failed to understand this because his model is decapitation. You think, let’s take out the boss. Then your are amazed to find the network (still) grows.”

Kelly and Tolstoy

Kathy Kelly told me earlier this week that she is finding compelling reading in Leo Tolstoy’s “The Slavery in Our Time,” a profound work that examines the dependency of governments on violence, completed in 1900.

The whole thing is very worth reading; here is a quote, among others, that seems appropriate to our involvement in drone war and war.

“I have one life, and why should I act contrary to the voice of my conscience in this brief life and become a participant in your abominable deeds? I will not do so.

“What will come of that? I do not know. But I think that nothing bad can happen from my acting as my conscience commands me to act.”

So it is encouraging to me to be reminded that conscience is what caused an unnamed whistleblower to release “The Drone Papers” published in October 2015 and what brought the four drone whistleblowers forward in November.

It may be that we will find it liberating, and more effective, to have to argue to stop drone war, and war, solely on the basis of conscience now that fear among the public has undermined the value of arguing about the cost or effectiveness of systematic, methodical governmental killing.

In short, I find comfort and encouragement in this time in what appears to be the indomitable power of conscience.

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