Ten Miles Square

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February 09, 2012 12:00 PM Standoff Weaponry

By Michael O'Hare

Kevin Drum notes that 65% of people in a WaPo poll approve of drone attacks on “suspected terrorists”, even on American citizens. The question mixes up some important issues, and Kevin dissects out whether a death penalty, no matter how delivered, for being suspected is OK. But a lot of people are also very antsy about using drones for anything other than surveillance. A lot of people are also worried about giving the police Tasers. Why?

I think our emotional reaction to stuff like this depends a lot on what alternatives we instinctively compare it to. Is the drone a cowardly analog to lying in wait for a bad guy and bushwacking him, a pusillanimous substitute for standing up and ‘fighting like a man’, putting your safety at immediate risk? Or is it just like launching a bullet from far away, or dropping a bomb from high in the air, or planting a mine that goes off when you’re in another county, except better because it’s more accurate and selective, can be called off right up to the last second, and even safer for the pilot/operator? Is a Taser a way of allowing the cop to overpower a suspect without putting himself at risk by laying hands on him? Will it be used where sharp words or the threat of a poke with a nightstick would have sufficed, or will it substitute for some uses of firearms, with less permanent damage (especially when the suspect turns out not to be a perp, but just drunk and foolhardy)?

I think we are diffident about these things in part because of some subconscious idea of sportsmanship. There’s certainly no glory in using them: a sergeant sitting in front of a screen in Idaho someplace, vaporizing someone half a world away, is not going to figure in a war movie the way John Wayne’s or even Tom Hanks’ characters did, and a cop at the safe end of Taser wires is not Dirty Harry. Achilles had status because he went face to face with Trojans (though it certainly wasn’t a fair fight), and Paris didn’t get a lot of props for a lucky arrow shot. All this is probably a feature and not a bug; anything that deglamorizes killing people is OK with me, even at a price of objectifying and abstracting it.

[Cross-posted at The Reality-Based Community]

Michael O'Hare is a Professor of Public Policy at the University of California, Berkeley.
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