This past weekend I decided to finally look through all of the articles I had saved over the past couple years on my chosen iPad reading application, Pocket. One particularly interesting find was a January 2011 essay in The New York Review of Books, in which Timothy Snyder, a professor of history at Yale University, compares the murderous regimes of Adolf Hitler and Joseph Stalin. Here are the first three paragraphs:
As we recall the Red Army’s liberation of Auschwitz on January 27, 1945, sixty-six years ago today, we might ask: who was worse, Hitler or Stalin?
In the second half of the twentieth century, Americans were taught to see both Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union as the greatest of evils. Hitler was worse, because his regime propagated the unprecedented horror of the Holocaust, the attempt to eradicate an entire people on racial grounds. Yet Stalin was also worse, because his regime killed far, far more people—tens of millions, it was often claimed—in the endless wastes of the Gulag. For decades, and even today, this confidence about the difference between the two regimes—quality versus quantity—has set the ground rules for the politics of memory. Even historians of the Holocaust generally take for granted that Stalin killed more people than Hitler, thus placing themselves under greater pressure to stress the special character of the Holocaust, since this is what made the Nazi regime worse than the Stalinist one.
Discussion of numbers can blunt our sense of the horrific personal character of each killing and the irreducible tragedy of each death. As anyone who has lost a loved one knows, the difference between zero and one is an infinity. Though we have a harder time grasping this, the same is true for the difference between, say, 780,862 and 780,863—which happens to be the best estimate of the number of people murdered at Treblinka. Large numbers matter because they are an accumulation of small numbers: that is, precious individual lives. Today, after two decades of access to Eastern European archives, and thanks to the work of German, Russian, Israeli, and other scholars, we can resolve the question of numbers. The total number of noncombatants killed by the Germans—about 11 million—is roughly what we had thought. The total number of civilians killed by the Soviets, however, is considerably less than we had believed. We know now that the Germans killed more people than the Soviets did. That said, the issue of quality is more complex than was once thought. Mass murder in the Soviet Union sometimes involved motivations, especially national and ethnic ones, that can be disconcertingly close to Nazi motivations.
You can keep reading here.
Kevin Jon Heller, writing on the blog Opinio Juris, recently did a great job of making the important point that while the U.S. government might be able to provide some legal justification for the continued use of drone strikes abroad, that would be different than providing a moral justification. Replying to responses on an earlier post, Heller writes:
I still want to resist an idea that seems to underly all of the responses to my post: namely, that we cannot (or at least should not) consider collateral deaths caused by drone strikes to be immoral as long as those strikes were legal. I strongly disagree with that idea; I think it is possible — indeed important — to insist that the drone program is profoundly immoral even if no individual drone strike ever violates the laws of war. There is a vast philosophic literature on the difference between legality and morality, which I do not have time to discuss here. … Suffice it to say that very few people are such thoroughgoing positivists that they believe legality and morality are coterminous, even if they disagree dramatically with each other concerning the particulars of the difference. Two obvious examples: “pro-lifers” don’t consider abortion to be moral even though it is legal, while the pro-euthanasia crowd doesn’t consider assisted suicide to be immoral simply because it is almost always illegal. Both groups simply reject the morality of the laws in question.
You can read about my views on this subject here
I just came across an excerpt from what looks like an interesting new book, Soul Repair: Recovering From Moral Injury After War, by Rita Nakashima Brock and Gabrielle Lettini. It seems a central aim of the book is to add to our understanding of post-war trauma — now considered mainly an issue of either physical harm or Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) — the new concept “moral injury.” Take a look:
Moral injury is not Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), but often overlaps with it. Many books on veteran healing confuse and conflate them into one thing. The difference between them is partly physical. Post-Traumatic Stress occurs in response to prolonged, extreme trauma and is a fear-victim reaction to danger. It produces hormones that affect the parts of the brain that are involved with responses to fear, the regulation of emotions, and the connection of fear to memory. A sufferer often has difficulty forming a coherent memory of a traumatic event or may even be unable to recall it.
The moral questions emerge after the traumatizing symptoms of PTSD are relieved enough for a person to construct a coherent memory of his or her experience. We organize emotionally intense memories into a story in the brain’s prefrontal cortex, where self-control, planning, reasoning, and decision-making occur. The brain organizes experiences and evaluates them, based on people’s capacity to think about moral values and feel empathy at the same time.
You can read the full excerpt here.
The moral debate on drones keeps rolling on. The latest installment: a politically liberal philosophy professor who not only defends the use of unmanned drones in warfare, but also makes the case that the use of drones is moral:
At first sight, Bradley Strawser resembles a humanities professor from central casting. He has a beard, wears jeans, quotes Augustine and calls himself, only half in jest, a hippie. He opposes capital punishment and Guantánamo Bay, calls the Iraq invasion unjust and scorns neo-conservative foreign policy hawks. “Whatever a neocon is, I’m the opposite.”
His office overlooks a placid campus in Monterey, an oasis of California sun and Pacific zephyrs, and he lives up the road in Carmel, a forested beauty spot with an arts colony aura. Strawser has published works on metaphysics and Plato and is especially fond of Immanuel Kant.
Strawser is also, it turns out, an outspoken and unique advocate for what is becoming arguably the US’s single most controversial policy: drone strikes. Strawser has plunged into the churning, anguished debate by arguing the US is not only entitled but morally obliged to use drones.
Why? According to Strawser:
"It’s all upside. There’s no downside. Both ethically and normatively, there’s a tremendous value. You’re not risking the pilot. The pilot is safe. And all the empirical evidence shows that drones tend to be more accurate. We need to shift the burden of the argument to the other side. Why not do this? The positive reasons are overwhelming at this point. This is the future of all air warfare. At least for the US."
Keep reading this thought-provoking article here.
Note: thanks to Tauriq Moosa for the link.
Once again, the moral debate on drones is boiling.
Earlier this month, Esquire published a feature article by Tom Junod, called “The Lethal Presidency of Barack Obama,” that was critical of the Obama administration’s use of unmanned aerial vehicles, otherwise know as drones, among other tactics.
Days later, the New York Times ran a news analysis by Scott Shane, called “The Moral Case for Drones,” that cited a number of sources who applauded Obama’s replacement of broader bombing efforts with precise attacks carried out by drones.
John Kaag and Sarah Kreps are now trying to make sense of this divide in this article. I suggest reading the entire thing.
As militaries develop autonomous robotic warriors to replace humans on the battlefield, new ethical questions emerge. If a robot in combat has a hardware malfunction or programming glitch that causes it to kill civilians, do we blame the robot, or the humans who created and deployed it?
Some argue that robots do not have free will and therefore cannot be held morally accountable for their actions. But psychologists are finding that people don’t have such a clear-cut view of humanoid robots.
The author goes on to discuss a recent study that found many humans — regardless of whether they think machines have free will — do blame robots in certain circumstances. Of course, this doesn’t mean robots ought to be blamed for their mistakes. It simply means some humans think they should.
Which raises a deeper and more important question: who — if anyone — should be held accountable for the robot’s mistake? Because you can’t seriously argue that robots should be put on trial or throw in jail.
Or can you?
In the latest installment of this blog’s coverage of drone warfare, the editorial board of The Daily News in Jacksonville, North Carolina, is taking to task the American public’s silence on the Barack Obama administration’s use of drones in Pakistan and elsewhere.
When the London-based Bureau of Investigative Journalism released a report last Sunday claiming that U.S. drone strikes have killed dozens of civilian rescuers and mourners in Pakistan, the American media scarcely noticed.
Similarly, while other countries hotly debate America’s covert program of targeted assassination, its legality has never been considered by a U.S. court and is seldom discussed by Congress, which has ceded extraordinary authority over the drone program to the president and the CIA.
That silence could well come back to haunt this country. … It is past time for U.S. courts and the United Nations to explore the legal issues involved in targeted assassination and set rules that take into account advances in technology.”
You can continue reading here.
You might recall that a couple months ago I posted about an article on The Huffington Post in which author Michael Vlahos implied that technological advances in warfare, such as drones, that reduce human casualties are actually undesirable.
This broad concern about drone warfare — in which humans are not directing engaged in combat but control a flying, armed device from a computer thousands of miles away — has been the subject of several posts on this blog, including a full-length essay. If you’ve read any of those posts, you know that I find Vlahos’ argument, and arguments like his, deeply flawed.
However, many people are now worrying about an fresh development in the drone warfare story: new drones apparently might be able to operate without the control of computer-chair pilots. From the Los Angeles Times:
The Navy’s new drone being tested near Chesapeake Bay stretches the boundaries of technology: It’s designed to land on the deck of an aircraft carrier, one of aviation’s most difficult maneuvers. What’s even more remarkable is that it will do that not only without a pilot in the cockpit, but without a pilot at all.
The X-47B marks a paradigm shift in warfare, one that is likely to have far-reaching consequences. With the drone’s ability to be flown autonomously by onboard computers, it could usher in an era when death and destruction can be dealt by machines operating semi-independently.
Although humans would program an autonomous drone’s flight plan and could override its decisions, the prospect of heavily armed aircraft screaming through the skies without direct human control is unnerving to many.
“Lethal actions should have a clear chain of accountability,” said Noel Sharkey, a computer scientist and robotics expert. “This is difficult with a robot weapon. The robot cannot be held accountable. So is it the commander who used it? The politician who authorized it? The military’s acquisition process? The manufacturer, for faulty equipment?”
Yet Sharkey clearly overlooks two important points mentioned above: that humans would both program and be able to override the drones. As such, I wonder if this new development poses any new ethical dilemma, or if drone opponents are simply continuing to oppose that which they find unethical. What do you think?
I’ve spent a good deal of time on this blog discussing the ethics of drone warfare. Recently, strikes in Pakistan and elsewhere have drawn major news coverage. Here are a couple articles of interest on this subject:
- The Wall Street Journal reports that Central Intelligence Agency has drawn back its drone campaign after both military and diplomatic officials complained large strikes were damaging America’s relationship with Pakistan.
- Daphne Eviatar argues on The Huffington Post that drone strikes are potentially illegal, unnecessary, and perhaps even counterproductive.
- Mirza Shahzad Akbar details in The Guardian why he is suing the CIA for allegedly killing innocent civilians through drone attacks in Pakistan.
- Human rights lawyer Clive Stafford Smith writes in the New York Times on the deadly human impact of drone strikes.
As always, your thoughts are welcome.
Once again, the United States’ use of drones to carry out strikes on suspected terrorists is front page news. The drone program, which I’ve discussed here in several different posts, is on the front burner because last week a U.S. strike in Yemen killed the American-born terrorist Anway al-Awlaki.
Such strikes have do not typically create enormous public controversy — in fact, the public is often supportive of actions that eliminate senior terrorists - but this one is different. Awlawki was an American citizen, and civil libertarians are angry that the U.S. did not arrest, try, or convict Awlaki. This, they say, violates the Constitutional rule of due process.
Do civil libertarians have a reasonable argument? Or is the Obama administration in the right? For more on these questions, I suggest you click over to William Saletan’s recent article on Slate for some weekend reading.