May 30, 2013KR BlogBlogCurrent Events

The Done Deal: Drones, Legality, and Morality

A scandal about the IRS targeting the President’s political enemies breaks one week; the very next week, the President makes a speech about limiting drone strikes and giving them a legal framework. I suspect the White House staff wanted to pull the Praise lever. (It worked.)

Interestingly, this is deemed a matter of moral uprightness, the Right Thing To Do. The public reaction demonstrates the interesting relationship of perceived legality to perceived morality. Sentencing someone to death without trial: Does this become less immoral, does this become moral, once it has a “legal framework”? Or is power simply declaring the action legally acceptable in order to make it seem morally acceptable?

The delivery of violence using drones is a military technique. In practice, its adoption or abandonment will be dictated not by its morality but by its effectiveness. Because of its similarity to “conventional” air raids and its use of “conventional” (non-nuclear, non-chemical) payloads, drone warfare has, by this point, probably avoided becoming a military taboo. The power of military taboo is not to be underestimated: Even Adolf Hitler, who stockpiled massive chemical weapons in the early 1940’s, refrained from ordering their use against the approaching Russians.

It seems clear that drone usage will follow the pattern of other long-distance violence-delivery systems, such as the bow and arrow, artillery, and the piloted air raid. If drones endanger American servicemen’s lives and routinely fail to score enemy kills, drones will be abandoned, and we will congratulate ourselves on our moral restraint. So far, though, this has not been the case. In fact, drones spare American servicemen’s lives and routinely score kill people it is in our interests to kill. This is why they will be kept in use and why drone technology will be further developed. This is also why every effort will be made to draw drone strikes out of legal and moral gray areas into a legal green zone—and by default, thanks to the general confusion about legality and morality, into a moral green zone as well.

The idea of creating a “legal framework” for selective drone strikes has been widely applauded as a way of limiting Presidential power. Actually, legalization renders permanent a power that was arbitrarily seized in the first place, during the Bush era. It renders lawful the illegality that is now routineIn any case, whenever legal restrictions contradict military or Presidential will, those restrictions will simply be ignored. Note how the last time Congress actually declared war was World War Two.

It seems that the Landmark Presidential Speech, like op-eds and pundit-versus-pundit chatter, is not how a society works out what is right and wrong and acts accordingly. It is, rather, how power reconciles a society to what power has already done. We are not guiding or correcting our conduct according to some immutable, inviolable moral or Constitutional principle. We are talking ourselves into a new normal.