The ongoing U.S. military strikes in Pakistan generally do not constitute front-page news in the United States. There has been little or no debate about their legitimacy or their efficacy.
But what to one community is a series of "strikes" or "special operations," a footnote in the news, to the community on the receiving end is aggression and war.
Take, for example, a common event of recent months: the U.S. attacks, by means of robot drones, suspected Taliban or al-Qaeda operatives in Pakistan. In the process, civilians are killed and civilian property and infrastructure is destroyed. Our headline, buried on the third page, behind the latest political scandal and the fluctuations of the stock market, reads: "Eight killed in Pakistan Drone Strike."
The same event, as understood by someone directly affected by it, will be seen as: my cousin (or parent, friend, or acquaintance) was killed by an American missile that fell without warning from the sky.
Everything depends on the direction one is looking down the gun: down the shaft, or up the barrel? And this difference in perceptions has consequences, especially over the long term. How much of the rise of anti-Western sentiment in the Muslim Middle East can be explained by the enormous gaps that separate the way each side of the "War on Terror" understands the history of America’s involvement in the region?
This perception gap is the result of at least two closely related factors: first, spatial and temporal distance from the conflict, and second, the asymmetrical power relationship between the U.S. and its enemies. Technology and wealth have made it possible for the U.S. to exercise decisive military power anywhere in the world. But our technology and our wealth often outrun our wisdom, our prudence, and our moral sensibilities.
Perhaps a particular drone strike carried out by the U.S. on Pakistani soil is ethical, or at least sensible – say, it eliminates an active al-Qaeda terrorist or Taliban leader without destroying too many civilian lives or too much civilian property. But how would we know? The truth is that most of us aren’t paying close enough attention to determine whether our strikes into Pakistan are ethical or sensible. The distance between the American public and the conflict makes the issue too easy to avoid.
America’s drones conduct offensive military operations against targets living in destitute, remote tribal communities on the other side of the world. But that is a one-way street, and the story, for Americans, ends there. The voices of those on the receiving end of the strike are rarely heard. If there is video footage of the strike, it is generally shot from above, from the perspective of the drone, rather than from below, the perspective of its targets and victims. The robot presumably returns to its base and tells no war stories, and at no point need any American soldier or citizen come face-to-face with victims of the attack.
With the exception of the pacifist and nonviolent traditions, most of our moral thinking about war acknowledges that there are at least some circumstances under which violence and killing, including organized political violence (or war), is morally acceptable. But are our theories about the ethics of warmaking up to the task of determining when, if ever, it is permissible to kill a relatively impotent enemy from a safe and anonymous distance, by robot or missile?
When we think about the ethics of drone strikes (and, for that matter, long-distance missile strikes), we must remember that we are missing a critical piece of information: namely, knowledge of the individuals and communities whom our missiles affect, and a multidimensional understanding of them in the fullness of their humanity. Such knowledge and understanding is a prerequisite for empathy, and without empathy, we cannot imagine the concrete reality of the suffering and death our military actions cause. And neither can we understand the depths of rage and grievance that these actions sow abroad, or the way this rage fuels anti-Western terrorism.
For their operators, controlling these "drones" must not be so different from playing a video game – something almost fictional, bearing at most a tangential relationship to the reality of face-to-face killing and dying that informed our ability to understand the depth of the tragedies of previous wars we have fought.
For the communities, families, and individuals on the receiving end of the drone strikes, however, it is no game. For them, there is no projection of power across unimaginable distances; war and its terrors come to them. We can understand what this means only by reflecting on what our own families and communities mean to us, and by reasoning through analogy toward a sense of what it might mean to have one’s family and community directly threatened by war.