Pandora’s Drone


By Michael Bryan

Note: This is a think piece that has been languishing in my drafts for some time. I am publishing now in order to see what, if any, feedback readers may have, not in response to any current events, although it does briefly touch upon the terrorist attack in Charlottesville in my last revision.

In a complete reversal of American norms before 2001, Americans have come to expect that our foreign, sub-state political foes will be dealt with by assassination. That might seem a shocking assertion, but the policy of targeted killings of those identified as enemies of the United States by drone can only be euphemized, not denied. Bush and Obama placed such assassinations at the heart of our military strategy against those groups and individuals seen as a terrorist threat to America, and regardless of who the President might be, that tool will not be disposed of unless its use is wholly rejected by Americans. Given that no great outcry or mass movement has yet denounced the continued use of drone assassination in our foreign policy, it seems very likely to continue. In fact, Donald Trump has re-authorized the CIA to carry out its own drone strikes, lowering accountability and reporting requirements in place under Obama, when only the military was empowered to carry out lethal drone operations.

Our desire for the perception of safety and demand of bold action by our leadership against possible terrorist threats has swamped any scruple we may once have held against merely murdering our geo-strategic enemies. We have always killed in war, but killing specific people, and all persons believed to be members of designated organizations, anywhere they may found, even in countries we are not hostile to, is a new thing entirely. But no modern politician will run the risk of being accused of not having done everything possible when the next mass casualty attack on American soil comes, as it inevitably will, therefore a tactic that began as an expedient use of a new technology in a crisis seems to have become the centerpiece our de facto anti-terrorism strategy.

Americans seem to have decided that extra-judicial state murder, even of some American citizens, is justified in our fight against terrorism. Despite the fig-leaf of “due process” of review within the executive branch that was constructed around the practice by the Obama administration, targeted drone strikes and so-called signature strikes on suspected terrorist activity are extra-judicial executions, pure and simple. We may hide behind the fiction that we are “at war” with some ill-defined terrorist organizations and thus those killed are “enemy combatants,” and any innocents killed as a result are unfortunate “collateral damage”, but this only semantics. Since we are not going invade Pakistan, or Somalia, or Yemen, or Syria, or (re-re-re-invade?) Iraq, or any of the other failing or weak states where terrorist cells might find sanctuary, in order to end the threat of these sub-state organizations pose to our security, we are going to continue to fight these “wars” with proxies, intelligence assets, and drone strikes. We will continue to make targeted killings, i.e. murder, a key component of our foreign policy.

My point is not to suggest an alternative, or even to suggest that the policy is necessarily wrong or immoral. There may be no more effective, more politically acceptable, or more morally inoffensive alternative. My point is to question what effect this will have on the evolution American political culture, and on the normative behavior of governments visa-vis their own citizens – including our own toward us.

If we now find it acceptable to assassinate our foreign sub-state enemies as a matter of national policy, how can we object to others doing so? What grounds do we now have to object to the Chinese droning a group of Uyghur nationalists hiding out in Uzbekistan plotting terrorist attacks against China? Or to Russia droning Crimean revanchists plotting to drive them out of the Crimea from a base in western Ukraine? To the Pakistani droning violent Punjabi separatists in India? To the Turks droning Kurdish separatists attempting to break off a part of Turkey to join with the de-facto state of Iraqi Kurdistan? To the Phillipinos droning drug-trafficking “terrorists”?

Once the ability to carry out drone assassinations diffuses sufficiently in the coming years, who will have the incentive, the moral authority, or, given Russia and China’s UN Security Council vetoes, the geo-political strength, to limit the practice? Do we enter a world in which murder becomes the first resort to deal with political disputes between states and their sub-state enemies? What would such a norm mean for the recognition and punishment of genocide? If an ethnic, racial, or religious group that might be plausibly labeled as “terroristic” and targeted for death by drone, international protections against genocide may become even less effective and enforceable than they are now.

How far from such a world lies one in which political enemies and rivals become targets of the drones? Many states already use assassination as a tool of political control. Given how often politics become violent conflict in many countries, even our own, I suspect we needn’t wait long to see examples. Given the “Second Amendment remedies”, i.e. domestic terrorism, urged by some on the American extreme right when the ballot doesn’t favor them, when might we see an armed drone carry out such a final solution to a political dispute here at home?

American political culture has always been intensely partisan, and it has frequently been violent: assassinations, lynchings, riots, and the violent repression of protest have been common features of our nation’s political life. I don’t see any cultural prohibition that would exclude targeted drone violence from becoming a feature of our own political culture in the right circumstances, especially since its’ efficacy and power are demonstrated for us regularly in the realm of anti-terrorist operations.

It’s not a long conceptual or emotional step for many in this country to considering their political opponents to be “terrorists”. On the right, many already consider environmentalists, animal rights activists, civil rights protesters, and even those peacefully resisting and protesting their party’s domination of the Federal government, to be “terrorists”. Could treating these groups the same as foreign terrorists become justifiable to some, given our current political culture? I’ll confess that I’m guilty of holding such views myself regarding Christian dominionists and white supremecists; although, to be fair, those groups have, in fact, sponsored and/or committed acts of actual terrorism here in America. Murder of abortion doctors, police, federal employees, and now even counter-protesters, by gun, bomb, and vehicle have been their preferred tactics until now. How long before these domestic terrorists adopt the lethal drone into their arsenal?

Surely only those operating outside the law would contemplate using lethal drones against American citizens? But we have as already seen the first lethal drone strike on American soil against an American citizen by a police force: Micah Xavier Johnson. Few would deny the necessity of the Dallas police delivering Johnson a bomb by police robot and detonating it to prevent further loss of lives, but one would also have to concede that the tactic was essentially a drone strike on a domestic terrorist to stop further loss of life during an active attack. This promises to become an effective and common police tactic against terrorists such active shooters, hostage takers, home barricadadoes, or suicide bombers. Few will seriously oppose use of this new tool in such high-risk operational contexts. Such drone strikes will lessen the risk to first responders and potential victims; I personally can find little persuasive reason to preclude the use of such tactics by police. The nearly absolute lack of any criticism in the media regarding the droning of Micah X supports my conclusion.

Consider a stand-off like Ruby Ridge or Waco with armed drones in the mix. Might the outcomes have been less lethal for all involved with armed drones in the mix? Consider the stand-offs with the public lands protesters during the Bundy-led protests in Nevada and Oregon. How might the lowered threat to law-enforcement personnel due to the use of armed drones have changed the outcome of those encounters? Given the risks such encounters with heavily armed extremists pose to law enforcement personnel and innocent bystanders, few would argue that armed drones are not a justifiable, even necessary, tactical tool.

The problem is, of course, mission creep and technological diffusion. Just as the extra-ordinary police powers in the PATRIOT Act have over time diffused into routine law enforcement, once lethal drones deployment is established as an accepted and effective tool against domestic terror, there will be inexorable pressure by those responsible for public safety to use the tactic more widely in law-enforcement, and against lower order threats. How long before less-than-lethally armed drones are controlling large and rowdy demonstrations that pose a significant risk to law enforcement? How long before those drones have a range of lethality choices on board? How long until that technology is also in private hands? Does the Second Amendment include the right to arm your drone? Would you trust the angry racist on your block with a remote-controlled gun or bomb? You might have to.

In my view, it is only a matter of time before we see lethal drone strikes become a common tool of state-craft, against both internal and external threats, by the vast majority of nations around the world. It is also just a matter of time before that technology also becomes a common tool for policing the most dangerous situations. Finally, we will see their use by international and then domestic terrorists. Pandora has opened her box, and drones armed for war have come swarming out; we will never get them back in the box, but if we are wise, we may at least learn how to manage them so they will not be used against us by our own governments, or by our neighbors.


  1. This is a subject I have thought a lot about and you did an excellent job presenting it.

    One of the things that makes long distance assassination so appealing is that killing one person pre-emptively might stop a war where where hundreds or thousands might be killed. The old “the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few” raionalization. Of course, once you start doing that, it is very easy to expand the rationale increment by increment until killing one person can be justified for the smallest of reasons. It is a dangerous thing to start and, if we object to other nations doing it, then we should not do it, either.

    Great, thought provoking article!

  2. Drone strikes on countries who we have not declared war on is one of my biggest problems with the Obama years.

    We’re a nation of ideals, we should live up to them.

    Our national interests, other than defending our allies more or less, should end at the border.

    So why do we have military operations going on in 140 countries in any given year?

    If some country doesn’t want to sell us their oil or minerals, oh well, that’s how capitalism works, right?

    And who would we be to be offended by another government targeting someone in the US with a drone, when we do it daily.

    Domestically drones are indeed a Pandora’s box.

    A homemade pipe bomb would not be a problem, and drone mounted gun videos are all over youtube. A little chlorine gas maybe?

    There are insect sized drones as well. They won’t do much good outdoors in a stiff breeze, but indoors would make a nearly undetectable delivery system for poison or drugs.

    And contrary to what the instructions say that came with your Walmart drone, they can have unlimited range. Anyone with some basic computer skills and maybe a soldering iron can make a system to control a drone in California from a beanbag chair in Vermont.

    We’re going to need to find ways to electronically tag drones, register them, even the little quad-copters you buy for your kids. It won’t stop every drone attack, but like all security measures, you put up layers of defenses.

    Signal jamming by law enforcement will help, but presents problems, you have to assume all drones use a certain broadcast spectrum, and that can be modified as well. Are we going to take TV/radio/cell/microwave/GPS signals off the air? How will LEO’s communicate if we do?

    Detection systems could be another tool for law enforcement, but LEOs can’t be everywhere, and how much would it cost to supply every law enforcement agency and football stadium?

    I’m going to stop commenting now, odds are against any single America being killed in a drone strike, still, I’m surprised this isn’t already a bigger issue, and I’m scaring myself.

    Good post Mr. Bryan.

    • Not that it will matter to you, Tom, but I was very impressed with you thoughts on this. You have given it some thought.

  3. Well said. The concern is warranted. Technology can be used as a benefit to mankind, sadly it is usually turned into something negative.

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