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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?”

Michael Dante DiMartino & Bryan Konietzko, “The Legend of Korra”

Following in the footsteps of its predecessor – Avatar: The Last AirbenderThe Legend of Korra, despite its billing as a kids’ show, is unequivocally one of the most intelligent, pertinent, and beautiful shows on television. And if you are in any way a fan of quality animation or unique stories, it’s one you should be watching. What follows is essentially a love letter to the new series and the old, because you can’t have a future without a past.

For the uninitiated: the world of Avatar/Korra is divided into four nations in which a segment of the population is born with the ability to “bend” – physically manipulate through force of will – one of four specific elements: water, earth, air, and fire. Beyond being just awesome to see and imagine, this ability gives trained benders incredible power to shape the physical world around them, but only with intense martial arts focus are they able to master the element and themselves. There is a deep spiritual side to bending, which is epitomized by the existence of one lone, reincarnated bender, “the Avatar.” The Avatar is born with the ability to master all four elements and bring balance to the varied peoples as a paragon of elemental harmony.

Avatar: The Last Airbender focuses on Avatar Aang, the last surviving member of the air nomad nation, as he travels across the world, gathering friends and allies, and mastering the elements in order to defeat the war-mongering tyrant leader of the fire nation. It sounds simple, but the story of Aang’s journey is told with such genuine emotion, insight, humor, fun, and more – not to mention the animation is incredibly entertaining and exciting – that to me (and many others), it truly transcends the “Saturday Morning Cartoon” and becomes something meaningful, artistic, and inspiring.

Some of the heart-wrenching situations and very adult questions that arise in the series’ last season (for example: Can one truly forsake attachment to the physical world in service of the spiritual? Is it morally correct to kill even the most ruthless killer? How far should one go to adhere to his or her’s culture’s philosophical legacy?) are complex and relevant to even the most skeptical adult viewer. And if this description has at all perked your ears, the entire series is available on Netflix On Demand for your viewing pleasure. There is so much to learn and enjoy, that it’s the kind of series I intend to make a required viewing experience for my (or anyone else I know’s) children one day.

After the bittersweet conclusion of Avatar: The Last Airbender, fans (myself included) were clamoring for more. Luckily, the creators obliged with the development of The Legend of Korra, a new story which picks up 70 years after the ending of Avatar. This story focuses on the trials and tribulations of the Avatar reincarnated after the death of Aang: Korra. Korra is a strong young woman who, despite having already mastered earth, fire, and water, struggles with air bending and the responsibilities placed on her as a result of her weighty mantle.

Korra’s personality and desire to live her own life are often at odds with the expectations of the greater world, elucidating a thematic conflict that makes her tremendously appealing and identifiable as a character. We’ve been with her for only a short time, but it is clear Korra embodies an impressive creative feat: she is a multi-faceted, genuine, fascinating character that has a lot to learn, but appeals and inspires as a hero regardless of the viewer’s gender or background. Korra – skilled, but not invincible – stands her own ground as Korra, and it is this self-possessed quality that is just great to watch week after week, even in her moments of fear and doubt. I have a feeling she will quickly become a standout idol among young girls and boys alike.

With The Legend of Korra, the series creators have lessened the stakes in some respects (the world is no longer at war and most of the action is localized to a single location, Republic City), but raised them sky-high in others. Family and history have always played a large part in the Avatar universe, but in the wake of Aang’s world-changing stint as the Avatar, Korra is confronted with nearly overwhelming doubts about her ability to live up to the legacy of Avatars past. Although Aang often struggled with this same issue, Korra’s very relevance to the world is thrown into question as a result of the advent of new technologies, social realities, and worst of all: an anti-bender movement aimed at eliminating the powerful bender “race,” and using terrorism to inspire fear.

The ability to bend is inherited, not cultivated, and this conflict raises a number of intriguing questions regarding many issues, but one in particular is front and center: the nature of power, from where power is derived, and who has the right to wield it. When Korra is confronted by the leader of the anti-bender movement (establishing the major struggle of the series), and her mask of confidence is cracked, it becomes clear just how much she has to learn. The complexity of this situation leaves our protagonist in a bind; all actions seem to betray someone or something, and watching her fight to rise above these obstacles will no doubt become the reward of the series.

And though we’re only six episodes in, that’s why I already love this series so much. What makes The Legend of Korra excellent is the confidence of its story-telling and refinement of its production. This journey is going places and saying things and it’s looking incredible while doing it.

Whereas the previous series largely felt like it existed on its own terms, the story of The Legend of Korra can easily be read as allegory, directly interacting with and addressing many of the most contentious and difficult issues facing our own world today. The conundrum of generational responsibility – how does a new generation move the world forward when its previous caretakers have passed on? – resonates given recent social and cultural movements here in the U.S. (Occupy Wall Street, gay rights, income inequality, etc.) and abroad (Middle Eastern revolutions, terrorism, human rights violations, etc.). The tumultuous world of The Legend of Korra smartly reflects our own and seems aimed at the politically- and culturally-aware adults in its audience. If this weren’t on Nickelodeon, I wouldn’t even consider it for a second to be a children’s show, its scope is that large.

This isn’t all to say that there’s nothing but brooding political grand-standing. No! Quite the opposite, in fact. The truly impressive accomplishment of this series and the one before, and what makes them both so endearing, is that they deal with all of these ideas and issues while still being SO MUCH FUN. The art, animation, music, and voice acting teams on Korra have truly outdone themselves, delivering a unique, charming, beautiful, and complete world and even more amazing characters. There is just so much conviction put into even the most straightforward fight scene that every frame of this series is a joy. The creative teams, much like the pro-bending Fire Ferrets, “leave it all in the arena,” and it shows.

In case you couldn’t tell, I simply cannot recommend The Legend of Korra (and its predecessor) enough. If you have a chance to, please check them out. This is exactly the kind of entertainment we, as a culture, should reward and encourage: creative journeys that you come away from more enlightened, with plenty to think about and celebrate.

For a new year I’ve decided to undertake the production of a blog alongside the development of my creative project, Only One Ally. I’ve tried in the past, but stumbled on questions of import and validity. However, I want this to be more than a blog and I hope that’s what will keep me going with it. Time will tell how I’ll grasp at uniqueness. I find it easiest to just start doing whatever I can, so I’m off to the races. Watch this space for more.