Is targeted killing justified?
Northwestern University Conference on Human Rights hosted the event “Drones, Predators of the Sky: Examining our War on Terrorism” on Thursday to debate that question.
About 75 students packed into University Hall on Thursday to hear from two experts in the field.
Panelists for the discussion were Associate Professor of Political Science Ian Hurd and Maj. Gen. Charles E. Tucker, a retired general in the Air Force who now works as the executive director for two international non-governmental organizations.
Weinberg freshman and debate team member Karthik Srinivasan moderated the panel and later took questions from the audience.
Both Hurd and Tucker stressed the importance of a nuanced approach to U.S. policy for drones, which Hurd defined as pilotless aircraft with deadly weapon capabilities.
“I think the policy is too big a thing to be for or against,” he said. “It’s like are you for or against Wednesday?”
Hurd added that the opposition to drone strikes cannot be lumped together, citing numerous distinct objections, including the technology of pilotless planes, the harm to innocent people or issues of sovereignty when flying over foreign countries.
Tucker said though he’d prefer to be thought of as a humanitarian, he wouldn’t consider himself a pacifist.
“I don’t want to come in here like some kind of Dr. Strangelove,” he said. “You can’t pray these issues away. You can’t always solve things with peaceful means.”
Both panelists called for increased transparency and accountability for the historically secretive program. Hurd said the issue of transparency was an easy "source of entry" into this complicated debate of drone use.
Tucker also discussed additional negative consequences of drone policy he had witnessed during his years in the military.
“If you parse through the data on the number of drug offenses, psychological problems, post-traumatic stress and suicides, all those indicators are higher for drone operators than almost anyone else in the Air Force,” he said. “Those factors will have as much to do with how we progress as anything else.”
Hurd said targeted strikes have become more efficient over the years, but ethical questions remain.
“I can tell you we’re getting better at it,” he said. “At the two-year point, based on open-source intelligence communication, we were killing 16 civilians for every bad guy. Today, the best number is we’re killing four militants for every civilian.”
The panelists discussed the generalizability of drones, meaning a point when the U.S. no longer holds a monopoly on drone warfare. Hurd said this has led to a lack of U.S. incentive to police drone policy. Tucker agreed that not much change for drone policy is likely to come from Washington while the U.S. is the only country utilizing this style of warfare.
Vinay Sridharan, a Weinberg senior and a member of the NUCHR programming executive board, said the group has been discussing drones for months, and saw the panel as an opportunity for discussion.
“The problem with drones is that it’s an issue so surrounded in secrecy, it’s so distant from our reality,” Sridharan said. “We don’t have an incentive to connect with it as students. We think it’s important because it’s public scrutiny that creates changes and accountability in drone policy.”