The New York Times, John Kaag and Sarah Kreps, “The Moral Hazard of Drones”

The New York Times, Scott Shane, “The Moral Case for Drones”

Esquire, Tom Junod, “The Lethal Presidency of Barack Obama”

The Atlantic, Conor Friedersdorf, “Why I Refuse to Vote for Barack Obama”

Oxford Journals, Bradley Jay Strawser, “Walking the Tightrope of Just War” 

The Atlantic, Conor Friedersdorf, “The Strikes’ Effect on Life in Pakistan”

What follows is a meandering rumination on one of the most contentious issues facing modern political philosophers and anyone interested in discussing global-political ethics: the implementation and expansion of the U.S. military’s drone program in the Middle East. As you can probably tell from the number of links featured above (and the length of this post), the issue is extremely complex and is of great importance to prominently featured thinkers across the internet, despite mass media’s relative indifference.

The majority of writers talking about drones tend to come down definitively on one side or another, either for or against them, but I find myself wavering among the arguments and honestly unsure of where I stand. Not that I need definitive certainty, but I thought writing a bit about it and offering some resources would prove beneficial for anyone else grappling with this conundrum like I am. If you have any interest in this debate – one which I think will only become more prevalent in the future – I strongly recommend any of the pieces above.

So, where do you start with such a factually and philosophically challenging problem? I guess I would begin by asking “Why is this issue so complex?” followed quickly by “What are your reservations?”

As many people are aware, the U.S. government has deployed unmanned, remote-controlled planes commonly referred to as “drones” to the Pakistan/Afghanistan/Yemen region to conduct reconnaissance missions and often kill suspected terrorists. These actions are carried out in the name of defense of the U.S. citizenry.

Perhaps the most sensational and widely-known drone incident was the targeting and killing of Anwar al-Aulaqi, an American citizen who defected to Yemen, joined Al-Qeada, and was suspected of having a hand in planning the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks in the U.S. This event is of particular note because it “was believed to be the first instance in which a U.S. citizen was tracked and killed based on secret intelligence and the president’s say-so,” according to Huffington Post.

The drone program was started during President Bush’s time in the White House after 9/11 at the outset of the “war on terror,” but of particular concern to observers is the way in which President Obama has expanded the program, even as U.S. ground forces are in the process of exiting Iraq and Afghanistan. The practical causes for concern are many and mounting: the CIA has never openly acknowledged the program’s existence, the U.S. Congress has never officially supported the program, there have been an unrecorded number of civilian casualties, the program reportedly inspires more terrorists than it kills, and the President seems to operate with unilateral, unchallenged authority. And to further complicate things, questions abound about the ethics of the program, which is where I am with regards to the issue: many questions, few answers.

I have to admit that this technology is obviously a phenomenal development in the prevention of soldier casualties, and it allows us to stop our enemies in remote, difficult-to-access regions of the world. I am not naive and don’t think every enemy can be dealt with through diplomacy or sanctions. But the increasingly remote nature of our armed conflicts and the resultant detachment of the citizens in whose name those actions are taken is worrying. As far as I can tell, there are four troubling questions at the heart of this matter:

  • Is the drone program more or less ethically acceptable than larger armed conflicts, and to what extent does the remote nature of the devices influence our conception of war?
  • Does the unilateral expansion and implementation of the drone program constitute an express overstepping of the President’s military authority and violation of the law?
  • Are the supposed benefits of the drone program justification enough, despite ethical misgivings, to engage in the remote execution of even a suspected terrorist?
  • Do technological developments that remove the risk of soldiers’ lives from the battlefield render armed conflict meaningless and is that a good or bad thing?

These are the questions I find myself debating internally and with friends whenever this issue comes up, and no matter how many times I try to wrap my head around them, there doesn’t seem to be a definitive answer to any of them. I think part of the difficulty is the fact that we live in a time when traditional definitions of terms such as “war” are evolving at such a rapid pace that our linguistic and philosophical vocabularies are struggling to catch up. Many contend that drone strikes constitute acts of war or even war crimes, but when the strikes kill a relative few compared to a traditional war, do those accusations hold merit? Are they even relevant?

And when we discuss the validity of unilateral military actions taken by our leaders, it’s growing increasingly difficult – especially where the Middle Eastern region is concerned – to see any instance in any shade but gray. President Obama’s decision to use the U.S. military in Libya without congressional support (as the law traditionally requires) was more humanitarian mission than war, and although his means were questionable, I ultimately support the ends given the rapidity with which circumstances were developing and the potentially devastating result of inaction. Further, he acted as part of a coalition, but without abiding by our laws – is that acceptable?

Many people I speak with about the subject contend that the drone program is without doubt ethically-bankrupt because of the suspect results, and I both agree and disagree. I think it depends on your perception of the persistence of our enemies. The most unfortunate aspect of the debate about military action is that the circumstances being discussed are often relative and subjective. I think most would agree that the U.S. has enemies that wish to do it harm. In organizations like Al-Qaeda, though, we find an enemy unwilling to negotiate or relent.

So, realistically, what can you do? If the U.S. government desires a proactive approach to negating the potential effects of its enemies, it realistically has only a few options, all of which have been used over the course of the last decade: a remote targeting program, a full-scale invasion, and a small-scale infiltration.

The questions I listed above are unfortunately predicated on my pessimistic understanding that the U.S. President will, for the foreseeable future, be required (by ideology or public account) to eschew a more ethically sound defensive posture for an ethically questionable offensive one. In other words, I consider this issue from the perspective that the U.S. will always want to attack its allies instead of defend against them.

Many would argue “the best defense is a good offense,” and that the potential benefits of the program far outweigh the cost or ethical agony. But I struggle with my confident belief that that’s not always true and that such a self-assured attitude toward an institution implemented with the sole purpose of killing individuals we deem enemies is cavalier and wrong. And with that I can’t help adding to my list of questions and asking myself “At what point is one forced to accept that the animal fear of pragmatism trumps the human hope of idealism?”


Scientific American, Travis Riddle, “How Creativity Connects with Immorality”

It’s a cliche in movies and comic books: the idea that the evil genius perpetrating insidious violence or instilling fear is simply misunderstood. Well, in this article, Travis Riddle discusses the dark side of creativity, as explored by a recent Harvard research project, and sheds some light on the link between active imaginations and bad behavior. Researchers found that test subjects ‘primed’ for creativity were much more likely to commit immoral behavior and then explain it away with elaborate justifications.

Basically, the active, creative mind is predisposed to bending or breaking accepted rules, which results in certain individuals unconsciously enabling themselves to go beyond “normal” social and cultural boundaries. Because creativity is so highly prized, cultivated, and sought after, Riddle comes to the conclusion that the study’s findings are unfortunately reflected in some of the worst behaviors among top business men and many culture leaders.

So, maybe it really wasn’t Jack’s fault that he was susceptible to the evil of the Overlook Hotel; his creative mind was just too good at deceiving itself into justifying his bad behavior! (sarcasm)

Travis Riddle: “In five studies, the authors show that creative individuals are more likely to be dishonest, and that individuals induced to think creatively were more likely to be dishonest. Importantly, they showed that this effect is not explained by any tendency for creative people to be more intelligent, but rather that creativity leads people to more easily come up with justifications for their unscrupulous actions.”

Travis Riddle: “In the case of the heads of financial firms and their exploitation of mortgage-backed securities, the tendency to hire creative individuals and promote creativity within organizations may be good for business, even as it is remarkably bad for the rest of us.”

The Atlantic, Maria Popova, “E.B. White on the Responsibility and Role of the Writer”

Beware: Random musings follow.

I find this article about E.B. White both inspiring and depressing. “Inspiring” because White is obviously a paragon in both the professional and amateur realms of writing with so many excellent things to say about the practice of writing as an art inherently vital to human existence, and “depressing” because of the unfortunately accurate observations Maria Popova makes in response to some of White’s ideas within the context of modern written expression, especially with regards to the internet. I imagine myself to be a “writer” in a few different senses, which makes it doubly strange and awkward for me to think about writing.

On the one hand, I am a professional whose job title includes the word “writer,” though I rarely feel like what I’m doing can be considered “writing.” It’s mechanical and uninspired, but does my completing my writing tasks with enough competency to be paid make me something of an authority? Is “writing” as a practice concerned primarily with the means of expressing? I don’t know. I don’t think so. My unquantifiable sense is that there’s something more to true “writing.” I’m not sure what I do from nine to five is “writing” so much as “engineering.”

On the other hand, when I can I do spend a great deal of time agonizing over my yet-to-be-fully-realized original creative writing projects. So, in another sense, I think of myself more in line with the typical idea of what a “writer” should be. Of course the difficulty in making that judgment is that I am the only one validating that thought – I am an amateur unfamiliar with the acid tests of publication. I could actually be terrible at writing, and thus a pretty awful “writer” when all is said and done.

Many of us write all of the time and for a multitude of purposes, but what is it that differentiates a creative writer’s more earnest efforts at clear, efficient, imaginative expression from the efforts of someone who is paid to do it or someone with little training and nothing more than a penchant to have their voice heard? Is the short-tempered commentator’s one-sentence response to a piece of writing as valid a response as a lengthy analysis of the same work? If, in the age of the internet, all voices essentially carry the same weight, who determines validity of effort and if no one can, why worry about it?

The question of validity is one that routinely plagues my creative endeavors, and obviously one that has plagued thoughtful writers for as long as humans have maintained written records. My only attempt at an answer to the question of validity is “enjoyment.” If the writing (either the act or appreciation for the end result of the act, i.e., reading) is something that brings one joy or satisfaction, I guess that’s all there is to it, even if that writing largely exists in a void. To write is to put forth ideas the writer thinks there is worth in recording. The best I can do is hope all of these ideas are of some value in the end.

E.B. White: “A writer must reflect and interpret his society, his world; he must also provide inspiration and guidance and challenge. Much writing today strikes me as deprecating, destructive, and angry. There are good reasons for anger, and I have nothing against anger. But I think some writers have lost their sense of proportion, their sense of humor, and their sense of appreciation. I am often mad, but I would hate to be nothing but mad: and I think I would lose what little value I may have as a writer if I were to refuse, as a matter of principle, to accept the warming rays of the sun, and to report them, whenever, and if ever, they happen to strike me.”

Maria Popova: “One important reflection is that in 1969, implicit to the very nature of print was a kind of accountability, a truth standard that engendered in White this sense of ‘responsibility to society.’ As news and opinion have shifted online, a medium much more fluid and dynamic, this notion of baked-in accountability no longer holds true and, one might observe, has allowed journalistic laziness that would never have been acceptable in White’s heyday. “

Note: This started off as a simple response to an interesting New York Times article, but quickly took on a life of its own as a full review.

New York Times, A.O. Scott and Manohla Dargis, “A Radical Female Hero From Dystopia

I’m pretty sure the film alone does not support the level of critical thought (the reviewers confirm this by referencing the books frequently) given it in this article, but this is an interesting analysis of Katniss Everdeen’s character as a modern, popular heroine. I think it would make the conversation regarding her femininity even more interesting to address that in the books she is largely taught what she knows and how she acts by her father. It really bothered me that there was no explanation for her skills and what she knows in the film – I also thought the fact that the leather jacket she covets was her father’s was a touching scrap of information (among so many others) sadly missing from the adaptation.

While I wasn’t looking for an exact replication of the novel on-screen (and was aware as soon as they announced the adaptation that a first-person narrative was a near-impossibility), I maintain that what was presented in the film was largely a hollowed-out version of an extremely rich and emotional story. We don’t get any exposition or emotionally-relevant content about WHY Katniss, in a world where weapons are outlawed, food is supposedly scarce, and things are so rough that revolution foments, she has preternatural archery abilities, knows how to carve a bow, has a nice leather coat, knows about deadly berries, or looks more vaguely disappointed than HUNGRY. It just doesn’t make any sense in context and unfortunately turns her from a HUMAN character into a SUPER HUMAN character, rendering the dramatic weight of her transformation from “poor, hungry girl” to “symbol of revolution” inert; in the film it is made to seem as though she is already a hero waiting for opportunity, as opposed to a person upon whom the mantle of “hero” is thrust.

Further, key scenes, robbed of emotional context, are cheap and opportunistic. Specifically, I am referring to the much adored Rue death scene. In the book, the scene fills your heart with lead because in her tracker-jacker stupor Katniss mistakes Rue for Primrose, and upon Katniss’s recovery, Rue tells her own tragic tale. These aren’t first-person narration moments, but they are completely missing from the film. We are given ridiculous, unnecessarily shoe-horned exposition about genetically-modified tracker-jackers, but we can’t be given ANYTHING about Rue as a character? They cheaply introduce her in the film as a young lamb sent to slaughter and the emotional weight of her death is cheap, in my opinion. It’s a sucker-punch on film, nothing more.

Back to the main point though, I think Katniss being taught what she knows by her father enriches the complexity of her character as a modern heroine and brings a new facet to the discussion of gender identity. It’s also interesting to note (with regards to the idea of the “gendered hero”) Gale’s role in all of this. Gale (interestingly, often a female’s name) plays essentially the same role within his family as Katniss, is equipped with the same skills, etc., but what if the situation were reversed and HE volunteered for the games and Katniss stayed behind in the district? Would The Hunger Games be as remarkable and appreciated a story by half? Or would it be dismissed out-of-hand as embracing the traditional hero and patriarchy?

All of this is not to say the film adaptation was not a worthwhile attempt. It is extremely interesting for a variety of reasons, but principally because it seems almost impossible to discuss objectively on its own merits. Managed by a mediocre director with the backing of a mediocre studio, with complex, definitely R-rated, subversive material molded into a marketable, PG-13 romp-for-all-ages, it’s easy to come at this film with claws ready and eyes gleaming. All adaptations are, by their nature, altered, but, to elaborate… Fans of the novels see The Hunger Games film and their perspectives and knowledge are informed by what they’ve read, so they may not even realize what’s missing from this adaptation without really stepping back from it and looking at it as a movie unto itself. And non-fans seeing this story for the first time are given a tale so absolute in its moral simplicity and middle-of-the-road in its presentation that it’s difficult to find seriously offensive fault. The onus in the case of the non-initiated isn’t on the new-comers, but given the cultural ubiquity of the books at this point, as I said, I think it’s difficult to address this film in analytic discussion without knowledge of the source material.

So, I guess my problems with the film stems from disappointment in it as an adaptation, and perhaps I’m being too critical, but given the influence the story has garnered in popular culture, I don’t think it’s entirely ridiculous to look at the film with a critical eye. In my opinion, treating adaptations in this manner is the only way to ensure quality from Hollywood, and despite its semi-progressive bones, I don’t think this film should get a free pass.

NPR, Linton Weeks, “Obama Is the Best and the Worst President. Discuss.”

When kids are growing up and asked what they want to be when they’re older, some poor, misguided souls claim they want to be “President of the United States.” Personally, I can imagine few positions I’d rather hold less than the presidency, but maybe that’s just me. I’m also of the mind that no one who WANTS to be in such a powerful position should ever be ALLOWED to be in that position to begin with, but that’s another problem entirely.

This interesting NPR write-up examines an issue that cuts to the core of political division in the United States: scapegoatism. I can’t imagine how difficult it must be to be the President, especially if you attain the office with the intention of trying to do good for the country. I’m sure most go into it thinking they can help the people they love, shepherd those people into a new age of prosperity, elevate them above where they are collectively on inauguration day. How disappointing that moment must be when you, the purported “most powerful person in the world” realize just how ineffectual you are; how self-destructive and resistant to the most basic, beneficial change those people are. They don’t know what’s good for them and they know not what they do, but you can’t dictate what should or shouldn’t change, because you’re supposed to be one of them.

It’s a hell of a catch-22. I believe Obama actively wants to do good, and although he (as with all presidents) has gotten caught in the complicated dance of mission, expectation, and opposition, he has done some good. That’s not to say he’s without flaws. I disagree with his expansion of what I’ll summarize as “Bush’s ‘War on Terror’ policies,” for one. His lack of commitment to the LGBT community has been sad and he’s done pretty much nothing for my generation and anyone younger. But the point is, he seems to be genuinely trying. I get the impression he cares.

All of this is to say that it would be nice if the U.S. citizens dispensed with absolutism in their judgments of his performance and adopted a more nuanced, informed understanding. Despite his best efforts, President Obama and everyone who helps him to achieve the goal of betterment are only human and the world is a more complicated place by the day. Although advances in technology have expanded our view, it seems the public’s thought processes have yet to keep pace. I guess that’s just human nature. Anyway, the article says all of this better than I can manage, so I defer to Mr. Weeks’ analysis.

Dean Keith Simonton: “For good or ill, Obama will also be judged according to criteria that must be considered unjust by any rational standard — most notably the economy. Even though the U.S. president has very little control over economic growth — particularly now that the economy has become global — he still is saddled with the blame for a bad economy.”