Unmanned combat air vehicles (UCAV), known commonly as drones, are arguably the most dangerous technological advancement of the 21st century. The involvement of drones in America’s continued war on terror has resulted in the death of over 178 innocent children in the Middle East—only 13% of those killed by drone strikes are militants or insurgents.
U.S. drone use abroad represents only one position in the discourse over drones’ problematic existence. Domestically, questions over the legality of the use of drones and the expansion of the U.S. surveillance apparatus have arisen. To what end does the current Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) bill, supported by President Barack Obama, put approximately 30,000 drones in domestic skies by 2020?
The defense sector, as well as lawmakers, have been leading the charge to expand the use of drones. Moreover, in late March the CIA’s chief technology officer, Ira Hunt, spoke in relation to the collection of civilian information such as e-mails, text messages and videos: “Since you can’t connect dots you don’t have, it drives us into a mode of, we fundamentally try to collect everything and hang on to it forever.” This in conjunction with expanded drone use has defenders of privacy in an uproar. It may be that within the next 20 years Americans will come to find that the only time you are guaranteed privacy is within your own thoughts.
Even more eye-opening is the Obama administration’s assassination of two U.S. citizens, Anwar al-Awlaki and his son, in Yemen without receiving the due process of law. John Brennan, former counterterrorism advisor to President Obama, has been known for his vocal support of the legality and potency of the U.S. drone program. After Brennan’s support of drone strikes earned him a promotion to director of the CIA, Republican Senator Rand Paul of Kentucky filibustered his nomination because of his support of drone use with targeted killing of Americans. Senator Paul stated on the floor of the Senate during his filibuster, “Our Constitution is important, that your rights to trial by jury are precious, that no American should be killed by a drone on American soil without first being charged with a crime, without first being found to be guilty by a court.”
In response to his concerns, Paul received a letter from Attorney General Eric Holder, stating, “The U.S. government has not carried out drone strikes in the United States and has no intention of doing so.” But he went on to say that drone strikes could be used by the president under an “extraordinary circumstance,” a definition vague enough to mean just about anything. The Obama administration’s cryptic and not at all reassuring message only continues and builds upon the Bush administration’s shroud of secrecy. It is the Obama administration’s lack of transparency regarding the death of the al-Awlaki and subsequent regulations for targeting individuals for murder that proves rather startling.
While the technologies’ Orwellian prospects seem to be the most illuminated aspect of the discourse on drones, one cannot forget their original purpose as machines of death and terror. Nor can we shy away from the effects they have had on the civilian population in Pakistan and other Middle Eastern countries.
One must then inquire about the profound effect surveillance drones would have on the police apparatus and the American populace. More specifically, what effect would drone use have on black and brown populations in the U.S.? Seth Freed Wessler and Jamilah King of the website Colorlines make an interesting point. “Even when laws do apply, constraints on law enforcement have a tendency to slacken when communities of color are the subjects of observation,” they write.
Will drones be colorblind? Will they affect the quality of life differently based upon racial identity and economic status? We have militarized our police forces and become more invasive in response to crime in low-income neighborhoods, as New York’s Stop-and-Frisk law has proven. Is it not reasonable to infer that poor black and brown communities would bear the brunt of drone expansion? Unfortunately these are not a part of the greater conversation being had about drones in the public sphere.
Detractors have argued that drones exist within a new socio-political landscape where age-old expectations of privacy and human rights are fleeting. However, the possibilities for injustice and oppression to occur through unfettered augmentation and mobilization of these unmanned flying machines are astronomic. For the U.S. as a society to allow drones to become normalized would be to reconfigure the notions of freedom, privacy and basic civil rights. The emanation of drones forces us as a nation to introspectively ask ourselves where we are going and at what cost the fabric of the Constitution is worth protecting.