Editorial: Tread carefully with drones


It has been several years now since the term “drone” ventured beyond the vocabulary of science-fiction fanatics and into the minds of politicians, engineers, and even the guy standing next to you at the coffee shop.

Despite an increased familiarity with the technology — whether through their use as weapons or as alternatives to package delivery — there has been no such increase in public comfort surrounding these machines.

On Thursday, the Obama administration declassified an incident that occurred in January of this year; in which a drone strike aimed at killing Qaeda terrorists also killed two civilians. One of the civilians killed was an American, Warren Weinstein, the other an Italian, Giovanni Lo Porto.

In his address, President Obama admitted that his administration was not aware of the presence of Lo Porto and Weinstein at the compound. And although the counterterrorism effort did eliminate terrorists, and the White House claims the strike was consistent with counterterrorism policies, the incident can only serve to heighten public unrest about drones.

The Daily Iowan Editorial Board believes that Obama’s statement to “do our utmost to ensure it is not repeated” holds little weight while funding is still poured into taking the step from semi- to fully autonomous drones. Furthermore, we support legislation and projects that protect U.S. soldiers and citizens but not at the cost of detriment to the U.S. human-rights standings.

Atop the list of human-rights concerns surrounding drone technology use in the military is the increased risk of civilian casualties. According to a report published in 2012 by the Human Rights Watch, “fully autonomous weapons that could select and engage targets without human intervention could be developed within 20 to 30 years.”

While the prospect of such machines that don’t require U.S. soldiers on the battlefield is enticing, the fear that something may go wrong outweighs the benefits of such machines. After all, the killing of an innocent civilian — American or otherwise — is one of the worst side effects of war.

Of course, the point can be made that drones may have the potential to lead to human-rights violations, but such potential is a small price to pay given the purpose of drones. In practice, drones are often used in counterterrorism efforts — fighting individuals who refuse to follow human rights themselves.

But when it comes to human rights, killing one to save 1,000 cannot apply.

It is important to note that the killing of these two civilians in January was more a function of an under-informed mission than of a drone strike itself. But with each civilian death on the hands — so to speak — of a drone, the support to prevent their increased proliferation gains ground.

Amid the unrealistic, science-fiction aspects of drones there is a legitimate fear of completely autonomous weaponized robots being the root cause of human-rights violations in the future. It is entirely fathomable that an unmanned aerial vehicle could make a catastrophic mistake and at that point, it will be too late to prevent the damage.

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