It’s a reliable rule of thumb: Whatever the U.S. does abroad, I’m against it. My first, gut-level thought on 9/11 — a moment that was all the more remarkable given that at that point I was coasting along with my family’s Republicanism as a kind of “default setting” — was to be horrified at the thought of what “we” would do to “them” in retaliation. I opposed the supposed “good war” in Afghanistan as well as the obviously “bad war” in Iraq, and I also came out against the intervention in Libya.
Yet for me, the drone thing is something special — it touches a nerve. I can see how people might convince themselves that drone attacks are a lesser evil, in the sense that “at least we’re not invading.” My negative reaction is more fundamental than any kind of realistic calculation, though. I have a knee-jerk reaction of “that’s just not fair.”
Obviously none of what we do abroad is fair. We account for half the world’s military budget, and even with our vast advantages in the field, we tend to prefer to much more cowardly route of carpet-bombing — to the point where it’s much more common to speak, for instance of “bombing Iran” than “going to war with Iran.” Sending killer robots seems to be a qualitative shift in unfairness, though — a radical and total isolation from any possible consequence or retaliation for our violence.
I’m not a pacifist, by any means. What I’m thinking of here is something like the distinction that Bruce Rosenstock makes between “hot” and “cold” violence. To have even a chance of being justified, violence has to put you at risk. Again, I wouldn’t argue that U.S. military operations put any relevant “us” at risk to anything but a very small degree — every effort is made to isolate the effects of war within relatively marginal groups in society. Nor do I advocate reinstating the draft or any other idiotic policy or position or hypothetical that simply assumes the U.S. is going to be constantly going to war.
What I’m saying is simply this: killer robots are the last straw, the quantitative “natural outgrowth” of the U.S. war machine that amounts to a qualitative shift. It represents that final transformation into an utterly anti-human institution that we all knew was coming.
Say what you will of carpet bombing — at least the plane could crash! At least one of “us” — albeit a “one” carefully selected to have as little empathetic potential for the mainstream of American culture as possible — would die, too. At least we’d have some skin in the game! At least there’d be some sense that the sovereign killing machine has some vulnerability, however meaningless a rounding error that vulnerability effectively turns out to be. At least our brilliantly “realistic” Nobel laureate of a president couldn’t rationalize his action as the pure and simple “defense” of “American lives.”
It’s a small difference. In practical terms, it probably doesn’t “make a difference.” But to me, it makes a difference. It makes me angry, but it mostly makes me despair.