Standoff weaponry

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.


Author: Michael O'Hare

Professor of Public Policy at the Goldman School of Public Policy, University of California, Berkeley, Michael O'Hare was raised in New York City and trained at Harvard as an architect and structural engineer. Diverted from an honest career designing buildings by the offer of a job in which he could think about anything he wanted to and spend his time with very smart and curious young people, he fell among economists and such like, and continues to benefit from their generosity with on-the-job social science training. He has followed the process and principles of design into "nonphysical environments" such as production processes in organizations, regulation, and information management and published a variety of research in environmental policy, government policy towards the arts, and management, with special interests in energy, facility siting, information and perceptions in public choice and work environments, and policy design. His current research is focused on transportation biofuels and their effects on global land use, food security, and international trade; regulatory policy in the face of scientific uncertainty; and, after a three-decade hiatus, on NIMBY conflicts afflicting high speed rail right-of-way and nuclear waste disposal sites. He is also a regular writer on pedagogy, especially teaching in professional education, and co-edited the "Curriculum and Case Notes" section of the Journal of Policy Analysis and Management. Between faculty appointments at the MIT Department of Urban Studies and Planning and the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard, he was director of policy analysis at the Massachusetts Executive Office of Environmental Affairs. He has had visiting appointments at Università Bocconi in Milan and the National University of Singapore and teaches regularly in the Goldman School's executive (mid-career) programs. At GSPP, O'Hare has taught a studio course in Program and Policy Design, Arts and Cultural Policy, Public Management, the pedagogy course for graduate student instructors, Quantitative Methods, Environmental Policy, and the introduction to public policy for its undergraduate minor, which he supervises. Generally, he considers himself the school's resident expert in any subject in which there is no such thing as real expertise (a recent project concerned the governance and design of California county fairs), but is secure in the distinction of being the only faculty member with a metal lathe in his basement and a 4×5 Ebony view camera. At the moment, he would rather be making something with his hands than writing this blurb.

15 thoughts on “Standoff weaponry”

  1. Should we ditch due process then, in favor of bringing back the option of a contest of arms? Justice exchanged for sport?

    The problem is epistemic. I think most people are very uncomfortable with the ambiguities associated with not knowing, and are even more uncomfortable with Power not knowing.

    We like police procedural dramas, where the police are passionate and caring, and uncannily good at suspecting the right villain, and all the legal rules are just inexplicable obstacles to their efficient pursuit of justice.

    And, sports contests notwithstanding, we do not like conflict. We do not like protest. We do not like unions going out on strike. We do not like people defying authority. The victims of Guantanamo or related injustices are never allowed a day in court.

    Drone attacks will kill lots of people, who are not explicit targets, or even identified. We’re using algorithms now to identify patterns that look like terrorism-in-action. You might as well ask Siri who the guilty are.

    The police will use Tasers to torture the defiant. The police will use the Tasers to torture people in diabetic shock, because they cannot be troubled to assess the situation in front of them.

  2. If you can kill people without risk to yourself, isn’t there an incentive to see them not as not human? Just figures on a screen? And an incentive to use this as a cheap means instead of engaging with them? This is the Mongol method of governance – “obey our commands or we come, kill you and go away”. It concentrates the other side’s minds on evasion, seeming compliance and long-term determination to ensure that this kind of humiliation is repaid with interest. Anyway, it does not seem to be a terribly effective tactic in Afghanistan, the West Bank, Gaza and other places. where it seems to have bred a lasting hatred but no inclination to make peace.

  3. I think the use of drones raises many difficult questions, such as due process. To me they seem counterproductive, but there are a lot of issues that would need unpacking before I would ban them.

    But I thought the point of a taser was that it is supposed to be a non-lethal way to temporarily disable someone who may have mental health issues or be high, so the police don’t have to shoot them. I don’t consider this unsportsmanlike. If I get high and scare people, I should expect them to call the police, and I don’t want the police to get hurt.

    It seems to me the problem is that people are dying from tasers, so maybe they need to be adjusted. Otherwise, I’m not sure I’d have a problem with them, unless there were another gizmo that did the same thing without causing pain.

  4. Not sure how relevant this is, but there’s a new book by a Marine sniper, Chris Kyle, which has created some discussion on sniper psychology. Although modern snipers see as well as Achilles whom they are killing, though at far less risk, it doesn’t worry them overmuch – selection or acculturation? Apparently they don’t dehumanise their enemies.

    The current use of drones is problematic for several other reasons: it’s run by the CIA, which doesn’t consider itself bound by the laws of war or indeed any law; follow-up drone attacks on funerals and rescue workers amount to targeting civilians; and who says it’s a war?

  5. “Anything that deglamorizes killing people is OK with me, even at a price of objectifying and abstracting it.” I want to agree, but: Even if that deglamorization makes it easier to kill people?

  6. As has been pointed out, drones are not so much a greater standoff method in war, as a way of increasing the ease of quiet, deniable, casual war.

  7. That is what happened that night when Sebastián Copons slit the throat of the wounded Hollander and I shrugged away
    Excerpt from “The Sun over Breda”, Arturo Perez-Reverte:

    “Captain Alatriste’s hand. That was how, scarcely without realizing, I crossed that shadowy line that every lucid man crosses sooner or later. There, alone, standing before that corpse, I began to look at the world in a very different way. I knew myself in possession of a terrible truth that until that instant I had intuited only in Captain Alatriste’s glaucous gaze: He who kills from afar knows nothing at all about the act of killing. He who kills from afar derives no lesson from life or from death; he neither risks nor stains his hands with blood, nor hears the breathing of his adversary, nor reads the fear, courage, or indifference in his eyes. He who kills from afar tests neither his arm, his heart, nor his conscience, nor does he create ghosts that will later haunt him every single night for the rest of his life. He who kills from afar is a knave who commends to others the dirty and terrible task that is his own. He who kills from afar is worse than other men, because he does not know anger, loathing, and vengeance, the terrible passion of flesh and of blood as they meet steel, but he is equally innocent of pity and remorse. For that reason, he who kills from afar does not know what he has lost.”

  8. I don’t see any difference between a drone and a human-piloted aircraft. It’s about how those things are used. I find the argument that drones make our forces more willing to bomb unpersuasive (we were already perfectly happen to bomb people, and our pilots faced very little effective resistance anyway).

    Tasers: conceptually fine, as a non-lethal substitute for a pistol. In practice, not so much, because they seem to be used more as a substitute for non-violent methods. How many times do we have to read about cops tazering some passive person while screaming “stop resisting!” before we conclude that something is screwy? Again, it’s not the technology per se.

  9. I think you’re (or maybe KDrum’s, I didn’t read the piece) causing some serious confusion by lumping tasers (and discomfort therewith) with drones. I object to tasers because police use them to torture people, and putting torture implements in the hands of police is corrosive to the values of a free society. I’m not comparing it to anything, I’m just feeling outraged when I see the consequences. I suspect that this attitude is common.

    As to the broad acceptance of using drones to kill “suspected terrorists,” I guess that just shows that we are the kind of society that deserves to be policed by guys who can torture with impunity.

  10. You’ve got to be kidding… how about the fact that the government/president issuing an order to KILL American citizens without even being CHARGED with a crime (never mind the rest of due process) is UNCONSTITUTIONAL? The difference between us and other despotic regimes or banana republics is that we are supposed to be governed by laws that protect certain inalienable rights, including LIFE and LIBERTY. The U.S. Constitution is the ONLY source of American exceptionalism we hear so much about.

    Too bad these important values aren’t espoused as much in the mainstream media as religious-based values (or in public schools for that matter). While the values themselves may be admirable, they are NOT the founding principles of this country. Nor is some idea of “fair play” in terms put forth here. The Constitution is the sole source of America’s founding principles.

    And, by the way, there’s only one (mainstream) presidential candidate who apparently remembers that, and it’s not our current President (who actually, if it can be imagined, outdid former President Bush’s constitutional violations). Nor is Romney, Gingrich, or Santorum. It’s Ron Paul. Don’t take my word for ANYTHING I’ve written here. I encourage everyone to get educated from a variety of sources and make an informed decision to exercise your rights as an American citizen.

  11. Russell, thanks for quoting from _The Sun Over Breda_, surely AP-R’s best novel and all I can say is “true, that.” (Been revisiting “The Wire.”) But I think it’s not so much the method of killing or the distance from shooter to target as the rationale for combat. Perhaps Achilles could hardly wait to whip out his sword, but Odysseus obviously had better things to do (unless I’m misremembering).

    1. I’m not sure that’s his best novel yet because so far I’ve only read two.

      As a hunter and fisherman, of living things that I eat, I think distance

      I don’t think that it is a controversial statement to say: all through
      the history of mankind the rationale for killing has almost always been
      nearly pure survival (“goddam bear wanted to eat me!”).

  12. A BART cop in Berkeley, not long ago, used his Taser on a fare evasion suspect who refused his order to stop. No one but the guy who was tased, and me, seemed too upset about it. I say if a cop is too lazy to chase you, and you’re not suspected of a serious crime, you get away with it. On the other hand, if he radios another cop, who catches you, you should be charged with resisting arrest in addition to any other charges, and that charge should actually stick, instead of being the trumped-up empty threat it usually is.

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