Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has been shopping around for lethal drones for the Royal Canadian Air Force. The prospective acquisition is being downplayed as intended primarily for surveillance purposes. Of course, that’s how it always begins. The first step toward joining the bloody ranks of the avid drone killers – the United States, Israel and, increasingly, Britain – is obtaining the means to conduct surveillance. But these sophisticated machines were developed for use by the military, which is why they have the modular capacity to be armed. As their names have always implied, Predator and Reaper drones can be used not only for surveillance but also to kill by remote control. Snap on a couple of Hellfire missiles, and you’re good to go.
It all starts so simply – and seems so very rational. Why not have a fleet of unmanned combat aerial vehicles (UCAVs) in one’s arsenal, so that they can be used in place of manned combat aerial vehicles when the need arises? Who in the world does not want to save brave soldiers’ lives?
Canadian policymakers may well believe that in order to best defend their country they need to make sure that the Air Force has the latest and greatest flying machines. Isn’t the purpose of having a military to be able to win wars? But if every other country has or is about to acquire lethal drones, then any military made to forego the technological breakthrough will be at a decided disadvantage. Even worse, come wartime, they will sacrifice soldiers needlessly. Given such manifestly rational considerations, it may not be clear why any Canadian in his right mind would oppose the government’s purchase of lethal drones.
However, the story does not end there. The problem is that the seemingly irrefutable argument for lethal drones shrouds the truth about what political leaders are likely to do once they have their fingers on the buttons of remote-control killing machines. The mere possession of lethal drones transforms what were previously the remote tribal regions of sovereign nations into “battlefields” where a seemingly endless list of “unlawful combatants” are waiting quietly to be “engaged”. Suddenly missiles can be fired anywhere, and everywhere, because the entire world has become a battlefield.
Lethal drones not only provide militaries with the means to fight wars, they also provide leaders with the capacity to wage what are characterized as “wars” in places where war would otherwise never have been waged. In other words, the possession of lethal drones serves to expand the domain of state-inflicted homicide, at the discretion of the executive. This expansion of executive power is, needless to say, appealing to leaders themselves. In purely political terms, the ability to appear strong by wielding deadly force generally increases the popularity of leaders at home – so long as they are not sacrificing soldiers abroad. Lethal drones therefore provide a win-win arrangement for politicians: they can wage and fight wars without having to write condolence letters to the families of fallen soldiers.
Once the machines are at arm’s length, and intentional, premeditated homicide is but a push-button away, the argument for using lethal drones is propelled forward by the need to demonstrate to the populace that taxpayers’ money has not been squandered on boondoggles. “What’s the point of having X, if you’re not going to use X?” is the guiding logic which suddenly kicks in. Former US Secretary of State Madeleine Albright posed a variant of this question to Colin Powell: “What’s the point of having this superb military you’re always talking about, if we can’t use it?”
It may sound repulsive to peace-loving people for someone to be fishing around for reasons to wage wars, but that is precisely what happens in the case of lethal drones – albeit one act of homicide at a time. Case in point: Britain. Before British Prime Minister David Cameron possessed lethal drones, the idea of dispatching his compatriots without indicting much less trying them for crimes would have been unheard of. As a matter of fact, capital punishment is prohibited by both British law and the EU Charter. But with a large fleet of Reaper drones and missiles at his disposal, Cameron suddenly awakened to the possibility of executing suspects using the weapons of war. Because he used missiles, rather than pistols or poisons or strangulation wires, to destroy Reyaad Khan and Ruhul Amin in Syria in August 2015, Cameron was able to portray the assassinations as acts of national self-defense. Who could argue with that depiction, when it had already been accepted with open arms by the American public for years, in hundreds of drone strikes authorized by US leaders?
Canada is moving down the same literally fatal path. Without first undertaking a serious public debate about the costs and benefits of drone killing, before acquiring the means to stalk, hunt down and kill targets suspected of wrongdoing, the sheer possession of the technology leads irresistibly to its use by leaders keen to exercise their authority and avail themselves of their newly bestowed capacity to kill by remote control.
Induction on the cases of other lethal drone-armed political leaders to date suggests that it is only a matter of time before Canadian officials will seek to track down and eliminate Canadian nationals located in places far away. The logic is seductive but corruptive, and Canada will be only one among many other countries to succumb, having been lured down the path to extrajudicial execution by the example set by the United States government for nearly fifteen years.
Caveat emptor, Canadian taxpayers. When your government begins to conduct itself in the manner of your neighbor to the south, you should expect to see retaliatory blowback within the borders of your own land as well. The recent attacks on Paris, San Bernardino, and Brussels were carried out by extremists angry about military intervention abroad targeting the Muslim people of several different lands. The suspects killed in drone strikes are never warned, and mistakes have often been made. Many undeniably innocent people have been harmed in the drone campaigns – grandmothers, children and, yes, “military-age males” defined as unlawful combatants but who had nothing whatsoever to do with radical jihadist groups.
The victims are facilely written off by the killers as “collateral damage”. Military killing of innocent people leads naturally to a vicious cycle of violent retaliation. The current quagmire in the Middle East extends all the way back to the 1991 Gulf War. Far from being surprising, it is in fact predictable that some of those outraged will choose to retaliate, as in New York, Madrid, London, Paris, San Bernardino, Brussels… They will continue to do so, for so long as they perceive their communities to be under attack.
That, however, is only a pragmatic or prudential argument against blindly following the lead of the drone warriors. There is also a more profound, moral, argument. Do the peaceful citizens of Canada really want their leaders to join the ranks of the likes of George W. Bush, Tony Blair, Barack Obama, and David Cameron, who “strike first and suppress questions later”? Do Canadians want to live in a world where disputes are resolved through the launching of missiles, rather than through the use of institutions of criminal investigation and justice developed and defended over many centuries precisely in order to avoid the awful scourge of war, and to fend off the danger of tyranny in an executive armed to kill at his caprice?
Do Canadians want their young people to be trained as professional assassins who are empirically indistinguishable from paid contract killers or hitmen? Now is the time to address the reality of what lethal drones will bring with them to Canada, before it is too late and the Canadian government makes the tragic mistake of following Bush, Blair, Obama, and Cameron down the path to targeted killing, what is tantamount to summary execution without trial, better known as “assassination” before the Drone Age.
Laurie Calhoun, a philosopher and cultural critic, is the author of We Kill Because We Can: From Soldiering to Assassination in the Drone Age(Zed Books, September 2015; paperback forthcoming in 2016) and War and Delusion: A Critical Examination (Palgrave Macmillan 2013; paperback forthcoming in 2016). Visit her website.