Drone Killings, Smite Weapons, and the Vital Importance of Science Fiction

Predator launching a Hellfire missile.

The first known attack by a United States drone occurred on June 18, 2004. A Hellfire missile launched from a modified Predator drone over Pakistan killed Nek Muhammad Wazir and two children. Nek was suspected of harboring Al Qaeda fugitives and was deemed a target worthy of elimination. While I have little information on the actual Nek, or the kids who died in the blast, I do know that on June 18, 2004 technology once again surpassed ethical evolution.

Since that first attack it has become commonplace to deal with enemy operatives using armed drones. On the one hand it makes sense. There are some really bad people out there who are extremely difficult to get to. If it would have been possible to deal with Osama bin Laden with a drone strike in 2000 we might have prevented two massive wars. And since then, a lot of scumbags have been taken out by our droids, drones, UCAVs – Unpiloted Combat Aerial Vehicle. (Stick an acronym on it and everything’s legit.) This is militarily justifiable in my book.

That terminator is out there. It can’t be bargained with. It can’t be reasoned with. It doesn’t feel pity, or remorse, or fear. And it absolutely will not stop, ever, until you are dead.

On the other hand, the longterm ramifications of using robots to terminate people we don’t like is chilling to say the least. More than a few science fiction stories deal with exactly that. And while they were science fiction when written, we’re living in the future now and it isn’t fiction any more. While it may not be a six foot tall Terminator with a cybernetic brain and a hyperalloy battle chassis, what it is, is even worse – death from above. At least you can run from a Terminator. How do you fight a droid loitering at 20,000 feet? People hit by long range Hellfire strikes don’t hear or see anything. In fact, there are weapons in development such as the Advanced Hypersonic Strike Weapon that are designed to be launched from the CONUS* and hit anywhere in the world in minutes. So, an agent spots a wanted fugitive at a cafe in Say’un, Yemen and calls it in. Twenty minutes later, less time that it would take a drone to make the flight, the cafe flashes and ceases to exist. I have a friend, who worked on this project with me, who calls this a smite weapon. Even assuming the baddie who just got ‘smited’ actually deserved his smiting, the ethical ramifications quickly become as complex as a Mandelbrot set.

President Bush raised the first ethical hurdle when got the ball rolling on using drones to target enemy ‘combatants’. It is illegal for the President to order an assassination, and targeting an individual for termination is assassination. His administration got around this by reclassifying the targets as terrorists which basically means you can do anything you want. Sort of like pirates of yesteryear. If you caught someone you thought might be a pirate you could hang them without debate. Now I’m not saying that pirates don’t deserve hanging or terrorists don’t deserve smiting, what I’m saying is that reclassifying in order to circumvent law is a dangerous practice when you have the ability to smite. Smiting used to be something only God could do and as far as I know, he’s the only one who is omniscient.

Obama is greatly expanding the drone war. Not only that, we are vastly expanding our droid arsenal. New UCAVs are in development that can fly faster, farther, longer, with larger payloads and better tracking systems. His administration likes using droids, er drones – sorry – because no one need know about it other than the guy at the controls who thinks it is an XBox game. And the potential for prisoners of war is zero, unless you consider the CPU of a shot down drone to be sentient. But his zest for tech has raised a new ethical hurdle. Some of the people dying in these strikes are U.S. citizens which means the President is now ordering the assassination of U.S. citizens abroad.

“Hang him!”

Now don’t get me wrong, I would never imply that the life of an American is worth more than the life of an orc, but there are laws that leap up when an American President is dealing with an American citizen whether at home or abroad. Foremost is the Constitutional guarantee of due process. A missile launched from 20,000 feet based on a tip furnished by a character of shady reputation at best, is hardly due process. Then there is the 14th Amendment that guarantees every American citizen equal protection under the law.(I searched for it but could find no amendment or clause that says these rights are suspended when traveling in a foreign country.) Like his predecessor, Mr. Obama’s administration just invokes the pirate doctrine, best exemplified by Governor Swan in the movie, Pirates of the Caribbean-Curse of the Black Pearl, when Jack Sparrow’s wrist brand identifies him as a pirate. “Hang him!”

But classifying an American as a terrorist to justify an assassination raises some very troubling thoughts. Especially if you are the citizen of a nation that possesses smite weapons. First and foremost, what does it take to classify a person as a terrorist? I have a friend who generalizes Christians as terrorists because a few (like a dozen) highly-radical and deeply disturbed Christians have bombed abortion clinics. And are there any geographic limits? Since these strikes are not isolated incidents but are policy, obviously the Constitution doesn’t apply across international borders anymore. So, at what point does assassinating an American citizen in Missouri become legal if you just reclassify them as a terrorist? And if smiting them with a drone is legal, why not just send some uniformed thugs (complete with a legitimizing acronym) to shoot them on their doorstep?

UCAVs first resembled airplanes. This won’t be true for much longer and will be that much more terrifying.

We live in a time of profound technological change. For most of human history change has been slow. Mixing of people and ideas has been limited to physical contact. New inventions had only minor impact on society. This is no longer true and has not been true for some time. The ability to keep people alive beyond their normal lifespan has raised enormous ethical questions. The ability to prevent childbirth through either aborting fetuses or preventing conception has quickly outstripped ethics which evolved under far different conditions. Now we have the ability to smite from distance. It is easy. Convenient. Relatively cheap. And up to now, based on our standards, the people being ‘smited’ seem to deserve it. But the question lingers uncomfortably in the air: Where is all this going?

And therein lies the power of fiction. I read a lot of fiction as a boy and then as a young adult. Mostly science fiction, and it just so happens that these ethical questions were being asked in the pages of the books I read. Even before these things happened I was being forced to consider the possibility and the ramifications. But then I stopped reading fiction. Most people do, in fact. They go off to college, start a business, or begin a career. Who has time to read for pleasure when you’re reading ten hours a day for survival? The value of fiction plummets as it is considered to be ‘make believe.’ Well if fiction is make believe, then mathematics is make believe.

I worked for many years as a rocket scientist and part of my job was to mathematically describe the behavior of rockets and missiles, program these equations and conditions into a computer, and observe the ‘behavior’ of the vehicle. Billion dollar programs live and die based on the outcome of these simulations. And though a simulation can never express how an actual missile is going to behave when fired, a good simulation can get you 95% of the behavior. The same thing is true of well-written fiction. It serves as a simulation not of things described by physics, but of people described by emotions. In fact, it is the only such laboratory available to us.

As we grapple with complex questions of ethics, we aren’t groping about in the dark thanks to the efforts of creative, forward thinking authors over the last hundred years, who weren’t writing fiction as much as they were running simulations. It was Jules Verne who first investigated the modern ramifications of unlimited power in 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea. As machine intelligence burgeons, it isn’t really new because Phillip K. Dick, Isaac Asimov, Ray Bradbury and others had us thinking about it four decades ago with works like Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep and I Robot. Drones that kill? Terminator, anyone? Bioengineering, euthanasia, utopias, and just about every other ethical dilemma we might face has been investigated, sometimes well, sometimes not so well, in the annals of fiction.
Sadly, Americans seem to be losing their way with fiction. I don’t know why this is happening, perhaps it is video games, perhaps it is just a general lack of discipline, perhaps it is the way stories are selected and published, perhaps it is all these things, but the stories on the shelves of the bookstore offer little in the way of ethical deliberation. Yes, they are simulations, but just as a computer simulation can be used to design a moon rocket or as the kernel of a violent videogame, literary simulations can be used to teach or to titillate. A cursory examination of recent fiction suggests the latter. A more thorough examination reveals that the word titillate is far too weak. But it is a problem that Aristotle understood. Even 2,500 years ago in Greece, Aristotle, one of the greatest thinkers of the western world, understood that fiction was a simulation of human interaction. An ethics laboratory where things that can’t happen, do happen, and people must face them and decide. It is for this reason that Aristotle wrote, “When story telling goes bad, decadence is the result.”

If you think quality fiction isn’t important, you are wrong. It has a stronger influence on the public ethos than any amount of CNN or Fox. If you aren’t reading quality fiction, you’re making a mistake. Reading crap will ruin your brain. Reading nothing leaves you defenseless. What are you going to do when things that used to be impossible aren’t impossible anymore and you are in the dark? When a computer becomes sentient. When a genetically engineered food goes amok. When quasi-humans are cultivated for their stem cells and organs. When a drone kills a bad guy on the other side of the world. When thugs show up at your door.

Is fiction important? You bet your life it is.

- John C. Brewer

*Contiguous United States

About John

American, husband, father, writer, rocket scientist, soccer player, motorcycle rider, Christian, and proud of it.
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