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10 Reflections On Drones (Part I)

Publication Date: 
April 11, 2013
The Huffington Post
Robert K. Lifton

A report co-authored by the International Human Rights and Conflict Resolution Clinic is mentioned by Robert K. Lifton in this Huffington Post article on  drones and the large numbers of documented civilian casualties killed by them. 

Drones have entered our consciousness. Suddenly they seem to be everywhere. The following reflections -- they could as easily be called meditations -- do not address legal, political, or military issues, though these have great importance. Rather I seek to begin a conversation about our relationship as human beings to these robotic objects as weapons. I do not consider their double-edged capacity for surveillance of people and environments.

I. The lure of an intelligent, nonhuman killing machine. We can give the job of killing to an advanced technological entity, a compelling robotic instrument entirely devoid of feelings, and thereby suppress our own feelings in relation to that killing. This extreme psychic numbing enables us to kill while distancing ourselves from the significance, the meaning, of that killing.


III. Another illusion is that of the drones' capacity for what is called "targeted" or surgical killing, meaning the dispatching of a particular person and no one else. Much is made of this ostensible precision.

The narrative suggests what Camus (in The Rebel) called "fastidious assassins" or "just assassins." Both referred to an actual incident in 1905 in which a Russian revolutionary socialist named Kaliayev refrained from carrying out his planned execution of the Grand Duke Sergei because there were two children (the Grand Duke's nephew and niece) riding in the carriage with him. The problem with the official narrative of the drones' "fastidious" or targeted killing is that it is false. This has been demonstrated by an important study made by the International Human Rights and Conflict Resolution Clinic at Stanford Law School, which included 130 detailed interviews with witnesses and victims of drone attacks in Pakistan. The report describes large numbers of documented civilian casualties that contradict the Obama administration's claims of their absence or their very small ("single digit") number. Many victims have been children, including 69 children killed in a single strike in Pakistan in 2006. The narrative is further falsified by the loose terminology that permits many unidentified people who are killed to be referred to as "militants" -- meaning people thought to be insurgents or terrorists, though there may be little or no evidence on which to base that assumption. "Targeted killing," then, turns out to be an illusion of absolute technological precision.