CAFE NOIR » Tales of an atheist, anarchist, wannabe filmmaker of sorts, and father of three lovable little beasties

Sorry Scranton, But We Kinda Had to Drone the Shit Out of You

predator-droneMy guy Sam Harris likes to fantasize about a “perfect weapon” thought experiment, wherein, well, here’s how he puts it in his 2004 book The End of Faith:

But we [the United States] are, in many respects, just such a “well-intentioned giant.” And it is rather astonishing that intelligent people, like [Noam] Chomsky and [Arundhati] Roy, fail to see this. What we need to counter their arguments is a device that enables us to distinguish the morality of men like Osama bin Laden and Saddam Hussein from that of George Bush and Tony Blair. It is not hard to imagine the properties of such a tool. We can call it “the perfect weapon.”

What we euphemistically describe as “collateral damage” in times of war is the direct result of limitations in the power and precision of our technology. To see that this is so, we need only imagine how any of our recent conflicts would have looked if we had possessed perfect weapons—weapons that allowed us either to temporarily impair or to kill a particular person, or group, at any distance, without harming others or their property. What would we do with such technology? Pacifists would refuse to use it, despite the variety of monsters currently loose in the world: the killers and torturers of children, the genocidal sadists, the men who, for want of the right genes, the right upbringing, or the right ideas, cannot possibly be expected to live peacefully with the rest of us. I will say a few things about pacifism in a later chapter—for it seems to me to be a deeply immoral position that comes to us swaddled in the dogma of highest moralism—but most of us are not pacifists. Most of us would elect to use weapons of this sort. A moment’s thought reveals that a person’s use of such a weapon would offer a perfect window onto the soul of his ethics.

Consider the all too facile comparisons that have recently been made between George Bush and Saddam Hussein (or Osama bin Laden, or Hitler, etc.)—in the pages of writers like Roy and Chomsky, in the Arab press, and in classrooms throughout the free world. How would George Bush have prosecuted the recent war in Iraq with perfect weapons? Would he have targeted the thousands of Iraqi civilians who were maimed or killed by our bombs? Would he have put out the eyes of little girls or torn the arms from their mothers? Whether or not you admire the man’s politics—or the man—there is no reason to think that he would have sanctioned the injury or death of even a single innocent person. What would Saddam Hussein or Osama bin Laden do with perfect weapons? What would Hitler have done? They would have used them rather differently.

Hmm. A whole motley crew of questions have been begged here, both moral and empirical. I’ll mention four of the most important, in no particular order. First, it’s a terrifically ludicrous appraisal of international affairs to assume that the US and western powers-that-be care much at all about trying to minimize civilian casualties(1). These are among the most powerful and ruthless people in the world, as they’ve demonstrated time and time again over the past decades. Second, it’s just plain wrong–as the empirical data makes very clear(2)–to think that more than a tiny fraction of so-called Islamists are Hitler types who seek wanton death and destruction. These are, by and large, fairly common folk who are desperately trying to defend their homes, families, and peoples, and only a small minority of them take civilian blood into their hands (cruelly and wickedly so, to be sure), let alone seek to spread random murderous chaos. Third, it’s absurdly simplistic and deeply problematic to hold that “where ethics are concerned, intentions are everything”(3). Fourth, the sort of grisly lives-in-the-balance cost/benefit utilitarianism that Harris assumes here is controversial to say the least, and I personally reject it outright, other than perhaps in extreme and far-fetched trolley car types of scenarios.

But let’s grant these four and most of the other questions he’s begged, and then turn our focus instead to one other issue:

Let’s pretend that Osama bin Laden had holed himself up somewhere in Scranton Pennsylvania, circa May 2011. And let’s say the CIA had credible evidence placing his location somewhere within a two block radius in a specific neighborhood within Scranton. Wouldn’t Harris and the overwhelming majority of Americans have expected the CIA/FBI/DHS/whatever-other-word-salad-agency to have conducted the perhaps slow and probably sensitive and difficult detective work necessary to place bin Laden to a location precise enough for a SWAT raid to have captured or killed him with minimal risked civilian casualties? Or would Harris et al have been content with the *unfortunate but necessary and excusable* collateral damage of simply having droned the shit out of that neighborhood(4), because the goal wasn’t to kill civilians?

But let’s up the ante considerably and imagine the following scenario: Let’s say that al-Qaeda had credible evidence circa, I don’t know, June 2007 that Donald Rumsfeld was vacationing somewhere within a two block radius in a specific neighborhood in Scranton (’cause why not?). There he sat, one of the chief architects of so much death and misery in the Arab world over the preceding years. And let’s say further that al-Qaeda possessed the capability to drone the shit out of that Scrantonese (is that the term?) neighborhood. Would Harris et al have thought for a moment that al-Qaeda operatives would have been within their rights to kill Rumsfeld himself, let alone the dozens/hundreds of civilians caught in the crossfire? Would they have accepted a “sorry Scranton, but we kinda had to drone the shit of you (btw, we’re bummed Dunder Mifflin had to go up in flames)”?


(1) Too many examples to mention more than just several:

a) The people of Iraq have seen almost unspeakable slaughter and destruction as a direct and eminently foreseeable result of western foreign policy over the last several decades. To be more specific yet, look at the extended US-led sanctions against Iraq during the 1990s, which resulted directly in the deaths of many hundreds of thousands of Iraqis. Here are the responses of Madeleine Albright and Bill Richardson to the question of whether this was “worth it”:

b) On the systemic horrors of the Vietnam War, see the following interview with journalist Nick Turse by Bill Moyers:

c) On whether the US/Israel/western powers try to use the most precise and targeted weapons and means possible, see this piece from the Independent about the 2014 Gaza attacks, summarizing a report which details (among many other things) the Israeli reliance on “‘statistical weapons’–mortars and other artillery that are almost impossible to aim accurately.” “Military personnel interviewed by Breaking the Silence admit that this was part of a deliberate effort by the IDF, and say that inaccurate weapons were used to bombard neighbourhoods before ground troops arrived.”

(2) Refer to the exhaustive data on the matter compiled by Robert Pape and his team.

(3) Refer to the recent discussion between Noam Chomsky and Sam Harris, a good old fashioned ass kicking by Chomsky. You might see mention by Harris of a certain “perfect weapon,” by the way.

(4) There have been many tragic cases of the US “droning the shit” out of foreign peoples. See here, here, and here, for three quick examples.

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  • […] But how about something like atheist activism? Probably, fairly low on the scale. Religion is not the bane of humanity that some of my fellow atheists seem to think it is. Nor is theism. I do think the world would be a significantly better place without fundamentalism–whether religious or otherwise–and activism in this area likely does help toward such a goal (though economic development appears to play the primary role by far). But, I’ve got much more in common on matters of genuine importance with a Christian like the aforementioned Greg Boyd than I do with an atheist such as Sam Harris. […]

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