A Further Perspective

Religious Upset Over Drones

It goes hand in hand with scare quotes around "terrorism."

By 6.3.13

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The pacifist Religious Left is again denouncing drone strikes against terrorists without offering plausible alternatives. Meanwhile, a spokesman for the U.S. Catholic bishops offers a more rigorously thoughtful critique while also failing to address the serious threat from transnational terrorists beyond the reach of law enforcement by lawful regimes.

The April 16 letter to President Obama from United Methodist, United Church of Christ, Quaker, Brethren, and Christian Reformed officials expressed "great concern" about drone "targeted killings" of "alleged" al Qaeda militants.

“The use of these lethal weapons within the borders of other sovereign nations, at times without their permission, shrouded in secrecy and without clear legal authority, raises serious moral and ethical questions about the principles and the implications of this practice for U.S. foreign relations and the prospects for a more peaceful world," the clerics and activists insist.

Predictably, the Religious Left plea wants to repeal the post 9-11 "Authorization for the Use of Military Force” and instead pursue "police actions" that "extend protections consistent with principles of human and civil rights pertaining to the pursuit and apprehension of a criminal suspect, including fair trial in a court of law." They complain that drones "destroy trust and lead increasing numbers of people to turn to fear-based responses, which may include acts we often describe as 'terrorism.'"

Note the quotes around "terrorism."

Naturally, these religious activists are interested in the "root causes of conflicts," which they surmise can be addressed by "restorative justice practices, and effective economic development programs." Their suggestion has merit if Islamist terrorists have legitimate grievances that can be redressed by rational recompense. But what if their mollification entails accommodation to Islamist rule and practice, including the suppression of civil liberties, which the activists profess to champion, and the suppression of non-Islamists, which would includes groups like these liberal Protestants?

These activists also bemoan the supposed ease of "remote, technical warfare," without admitting they, as literal or functional pacifists, oppose all warfare and force. Their appeal offers no reason for serious consideration. But it illustrates how some church officials, ignoring their own religious teachings about fallen humanity, want desperately to pretend that the world is intrinsically benign and just.

Offering more moral seriousness is the recent letter to the White House by the Catholic bishops' chairman of their Committee on International Justice and Peace, which, unlike the liberal Protestants, affirms a "right to use force in self-defense" while urging restraint. It also tags al Qaeda as "uniquely dangerous." And it recognizes the Administration's "primary obligation to protect the lives and welfare of our citizens," while stipulating "we do not underestimate the threat posed by terrorist organizations," and granting the "necessity for operational secrecy in counter-terrorism."

The Catholic letter asserts that counter-terrorism is "primarily a law enforcement activity," that drone attacks occur outside war zones, and even in war, may violate just war principles on "discrimination, imminence of the threat, proportionality and probability of success."

It suggests that a "proper understanding of proportionality in counter- terrorism would elevate the bar against the use of deadly force above its setting in war, and would call for a much wider range of economic, political and diplomatic responses in order to get at the root causes and injustices that terrorists exploit."

The Catholic letter also wonders whether "targeted killing may contribute to terrorism by reinforcing a community's sense of being subject to domination and injustice," while exacerbating "anti-American sentiment, [encouraging] recruitment by extremists, and [undermining] the international collaboration necessary to combat terrorism."

Drone strikes may indeed provoke enemies. But so too would conventional bombing, military abductions, or even apprehension by domestic law enforcement, if even possible, at the behest of the U.S. Is there any way to neutralize terrorists without inflaming their "community”? And doesn't the absence of decisive action against them only further enhance their prestige within their "community" while communicating that Americans may be targeted with impunity?

As to whether drone strikes occur within war zones, it's hard to see how places like remote Pakistan, Yemen, or Mali can be regarded otherwise. And what if host governments, although unable to say so publicly, effectively authorize U.S. drone strikes because they lack the military, police, or political capacity to eliminate terror targets? How would law enforcement substituting for warfare possibly function in such situations?

On just war teaching, the relative precision of drones seems better to approximate the standards regarding "discrimination, imminence of the threat, proportionality and probability of success" than all of the available, plausible alternatives.

The Catholic letter is more modest than the liberal Protestant plea, perhaps recognizing the limits of their expertise and vocation, unlike the liberal Protestants, who claim to speak ex cathedra on nearly every political issue while typically ambivalent theologically. But both letters seem to expect a level of perfection and power that not even the U.S. at its very best can possibly attain.

Technology and modern scruples have made war and law enforcement more precise than ever before But churches attuned to the limits of human capacity must understand that states, when defending the innocent from the murderous, must act boldly, stealthily, dangerously, and without guarantee of absolute success. Winston Churchill reputedly said: "The maxim 'Nothing but perfection’ may be spelled ‘Paralysis.'" High-minded theorists may demand moral precision, but no government this side of heaven can guarantee it.

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About the Author

Mark Tooley is president of the Institute on Religion and Democracy in Washington, D.C. and author of Methodism and Politics in the Twentieth CenturyYou can follow him on Twitter @markdtooley.