Last week we heard that back in January, a US drone accidentally killed two hostages – one American, one Italian – in an attack on an al-Qaeda compound in Pakistan. Not surprisingly, President Obama publicly expressed his “profound regret” as he offered “deepest apologies” to the victims’ families. But beyond inviting sympathy for the two men in question, the story of these most undesirable deaths-by-drone raised far bigger questions concerning these eerie devices that are at once controversial and “clean”, precise and prone to error. At what cost comes our capacity to kill from a distance and can technology ever be truly infallible?
Regardless of your opinion on drones they are, as the saying goes, “good to think with”. They raise great questions of sovereignty, democracy and responsibility in a world where we’re increasingly connected by technology but ever more alienated by it. Used to kill our supposed enemies, drones are convenient for leaders of comfortable “peace-loving” states who would rather citizens live cocooned in the belief that state security can come simply at the press of a button.
But when tales of accidental death-by-drone rupture into our living rooms they remind us that our democracies and their politics are bound up in death; that killing conducted by states is no mere computer game. Room for error remains and collateral damage persists, regardless of the seeming “advancement” of the tools at our disposal.
But we should not be concerned about drones only because they sometimes miss their intended targets. Even where drones do fulfil their task their very existence stands for something worrying. They represent an increasingly impersonal world in which our actions are too often neatly detached from their messy consequences and where we seem ever-more remote from the suffering of others.
Go back a century and those fighting in the First World War – though also often firing at a distance – knew far better the cost of killing than many do today in western democracies. Some died literally facing “the other”. And those who saw their opponents die wrote home with inky tales not of button-pressing alone but of blood, brutality and the human face of war. Theirs was a generation that did not play violent online games nor watch gory scenes on the nightly news yet which somehow knew, far better than we do today, the real price of conflict.
Of course, drones are not all bad: they can be used to pursue welfare rather than warfare and deliver medicines to remote communities. But the fact that they can be used to both save and take lives should serve as reminder enough that technology itself is nothing to be celebrated; change is not synonymous with progress. Behind the use of drones is man himself; our capacity for error will never go away. We are better off confronting and questioning the cost of conflict than pretending that it can ever be truly “clean”.
Alice Bloch is an associate producer for Monocle 24.