Orwell Revisited

An excellent article in Yahoo News by Walter Shapiro raises a number of important questions about why there was virtually no discussion about the ongoing drone attacks in the recent Presidential debates. In a word, it is because “they” don’t want us to know what is going on “over there,” and both Presidential candidates support the attacks in the name of protecting America. So it’s not an issue that separates the candidates. But Shapiro asks a couple of troubling questions:

The Washington Post reported this week that the Obama administration is developing a “disposition matrix” for its next-generation terrorist assassination program. (The adjective Orwellian is over-used, but it is undeniably apt for a kill list being euphemistically reworked as a “disposition matrix”).

During the Vietnam War, George Aiken, a Republican senator from Vermont, suggested that America should declare victory and come home. Eleven years after the Sept. 11 attacks and 18 months after the death of Osama bin Laden, it is time to debate how long America is justified in using drone attacks against the remnants of al-Qaida and other groups of loosely affiliated terrorists.

Is this war without end, amen? Does the bureaucratic momentum of the drone program mean that it will continue for decades? Is there another kind of disposition matrix that will tell us when the costs of the drone program (from terrorist recruiting to collateral damage) outweigh its benefits?

It is a very weak moral system that weighs costs against benefits. But it is done in business routinely — which simply tells us how the business model has permeated this culture. Such a calculation results in strange ethical conclusions, such as the continued production of the Pinto automobile after it has gone up in flames killing or maiming a number of drivers in rear-end collisions. And it “justifies” drone killing in the name of the “national interest.” Weighing alternatives may be realpolitik but it is bad morality: it ignores the victims — like the 16 year-old American son of a terrorist suspect who was in the country looking for his father and happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time thereby becoming part of the “residual effect” of a drone killing in Pakistan not long ago.

It has been said, and rightly so, that the President has to make tough decisions and we are not privy to the information available to him through his various secret agencies. All too true. But we like to think that America takes the moral high ground whenever possible and every citizen with a brain and a conscience should join in asking with Walter Shapiro “when will this end?” Let’s face it, it’s terrorism in the name of defending ourselves against terrorism. It is wrong and it is not clear that it is even in the national interest when there are other ways to deal effectively with terrorism. Further, it strikes fear in the hearts of our allies as well as our enemies, and it promotes the image of America as the Big Bully on the block who is out to knock over anyone in his way.