May 1, 2009

Dinner and a Drone

It was a night for the ages. World leaders gathered in London to debate the global economic crisis, but not before praising each other, swapping gossip and exchanging gifts with the Queen. In traditionalist England, it was dinner and a show as usual. Only the real show was in the tribal belt of Pakistan, which belied the pomp of humility and royalty being presented.

As pictures of President Obama and wife Michelle, basking in the light of a thousand cameras, were beamed world wide, another report was creeping into the Pakistani media. A pair of drone missiles had just struck a village in the Orakzai agency far from the usual targets in Waziristan. As the night went on and the story was distributed throughout the Pakistani media and eventually to Western new-sites, it become apparent that the drone strike corresponded to London’s festivities.

In his most vivid demonstration of soft and hard power, Obama had dinner with foreign dignitaries and bombed a compound of Baitullah Mehsud.

Mehsud had threatened the White House and the drone attack was a direct response; one of his commanders was targeted but he had left the house shortly before the missiles arrived. At least 10 low level militants were killed in his place, while the Pakistani media also reported the deaths of two women and three children.

President Obama isn’t the one pressing the button but he is the one authorizing these drone attacks, meaning that innocent blood is now spilled on his hands. Drones are an endless argument, loaded with questions as to who should be killed, why and where. But lost in the technical and political argument is something deeper - our humanity.

Konrad Lorenz is considered a founder of ethology - the study of animal behavior - which includes humans. In his landmark 1966 book On Aggression, Lorenz delved into the subconscious link between aggression and animals and its connection to resources. But Lorenz was a philosopher as much as a scientist and like many others during his time, his experience of World War 2 led to doubts in the human species.

Widespread fire bombing on all sides led Lorenz to investigate what drives a human to kill another human and what stops them. He theorized that newly invented long-range weapons, which put the killer far from the killed, were the cause of much devastation. The killing inhibition in humans - the fear of blood and the sight of terror in another’s eye - was suppressed when the killer didn’t witness the damage they caused, both physically and emotionally.

Lorenz concluded that the only way people could kill each other so easily and so numerously was to be far away from the target. Concerning “modern remote-control weapons”, Lorenz stated that, “The man who presses the releasing button is so completely screened against seeing, hearing or otherwise emotionally realizing the consequences of his action, that he can commit it with impunity.”

Al Qaeda and the Taliban want Americans dead so Americans should want them dead, at least that’s the logic. But how long will this take? Until we become them? Until we can kill with equal cold-bloodiness? The location and targets of drone attacks, their political implications and security ramifications are only the surface of debate. Using machines to kill so humans don’t have to is a deep philosophical issue that deserves more attention than it's receiving.

The human species is at yet another military crossroads, stocked with futuristic weapons that may further threaten its humanity. Lorenz marveled, “Only thus can it be explained that perfectly good-natured men, who would not even smack a naughty child, proved to be perfectly able to release rockets... the fact that it is good, normal men who did this, is as eerie as any fiendish atrocity in war.”

And the only way to explain dinner and a drone.

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