Flying Blind

Flying Blind

Predator drones kill al-Qaeda leaders without risk to American soldiers; dangerous plotters of terror are efficiently annihilated; and those not yet killed are kept off-balance, in a constant state of fear. What’s not to like?

For starters, the moral indecency of it. Which is why we ought to feel a palpable queasiness when we think about these machines hovering over Pakistan like angry all-seeing dragonflies, slicing and dicing people in our names.

In 70 Predator strikes so far in Pakistan, 600-odd people have been killed, including 17 in the al-Qaeda high command. Turn it around the other way and imagine that Pakistan conducted similar strikes within the sovereign boundaries of the United States, causing a 600 to 17 ratio of what we callously call “collateral” damage. Our outrage quotient would quickly equal and surpass what we felt after 9/11. War would be declared on Pakistan so fast it would make our heads spin.

Even supposing we could strike so “surgically” (another popular but euphemistic phrase) that we never harmed a single innocent bystander – is it right to kill terrorists “extra-judicially”? Will it make us safer? No and no.

Especially when alternatives are available that can prevent us from sinking to the level of the terrorists themselves. The extraordinary technology of the Predator’s “eye,” enabling the military to identify individuals from two miles overhead, suggests that, having located a person of interest, we could send in a helicopter, make an arrest and try the defendant in our courts, showing the world our best face. Leaving aside that a live terrorist might be a better source of information and motivation than a dead one.

Instead, what we are doing to extremists and those unlucky enough to be in their vicinity looks oddly indistinguishable from terrorism itself – sanctioning a vicious cycle of brutality that will only end when our nation realizes that “going over to the dark side” leaves us in a state of ethical blindness.

The Pentagon ordered three thousand copies of “Three Cups of Tea,” the best-seller about Greg Mortenson’s efforts to build schools for girls in wild parts of the Af-Pak region, because they understood the book provided a useful model of cultural empathy. But they missed the point if their premise was to integrate the disinterested good will of a Mortenson with murder by remote control.

A fully accessorized Predator goes for 40 million dollars, for which sum Greg could hire 15,000 teachers for ten years, at his going rate of $20 a month. We have to choose one or the other, bombs or books, because we can’t do both and win hearts and minds.

Which choice will lead to less terrorism?