Some Bad Ideas Can't Be Shot Down

by Darryl Li | published January 31, 2012 - 2:59pm

Some ideas are so absurd that they reveal interesting things about the times in which we live. Take, for example, an opinion piece by Andrew Stobo Sniderman and Mark Hanis in today’s New York Times suggesting that human rights organizations employ drone aircraft to monitor brutal regimes such as in Syria. “If human rights organizations can spy on evil, they should.”

As a practical matter, a very simple question remains unanswered: Why should any human rights organization invest “hundreds of thousands of dollars -- no longer many millions” (what a relief) in drones that a regime like Syria’s could easily shoot down? Indeed, by the end of the article the authors back away from this scenario and acknowledge that the idea may not make much sense in Syria after all. But no matter: Drones should nevertheless “assume their place in the arsenal of human rights advocates. It is a precedent worth setting, especially in situations where evidence of large-scale human rights violations is hard to come by.”

What is this precedent, exactly? The argument here essentially boils down to the following: If states can use drones, why can’t “we,” as human rights advocates? “Why not get drones to assist the good work?” As someone who once worked on an early use of satellite imagery for human rights advocacy, I am not entirely unsympathetic. But an obvious point lurks unaddressed: Human rights groups are not states.

Governments rarely if ever use drones in the way Sniderman and Hanis imagine, i.e., for peaceful purposes over territory of hostile states. Most often, they fly over areas whose rulers have (perhaps grudgingly) consented, such as in Pakistan and Iraq. Or drones are part of a war effort; they can be shot down, but they are also shooting or bombing back, as in Libya. The fantasy on offer -- of “humanitarian drones” “broadcast[ing] for a global audience, including diplomats at the United Nations” -- only makes sense against such a backdrop of state power. When Madeleine Albright famously exhibited images of mass graves from the Srebrenica massacre to the UN Security Council (itself a performative moment echoing Adlai Stevenson brandishing surveillance photos in the same room during the Cuban missile crisis), she was able to do so thanks to the US military.

Here, the obvious problems with Sniderman and Hanis’ proposal are less interesting than the imagination of politics at work that presumably made this article publishable in the first place. They posit the existence of an international community that, with the help of technology, can make incrementally more rational decisions about the collective endorsement of military force. There is an audience of bystanders (never perpetrators or accomplices, of course) who through the power of images can have their consciences activated. Political struggles, including the contestation of divergent collective interests, are replaced by stark moral dramas that, paradoxically, call for low-cost, low-risk responses. Hence Sniderman and Hanis casually reference drones helping to protect endangered whales, the perfect confluence of moral sentiment and technocratic management.

Working asymptotically toward such a flawed fantasy happens to be useful for defending the one precondition for this ideal world that has come closest to realization: a capacity for intervention made possible by a (fading) unipolar moment in which one hegemon can project violence with apparent impunity over much of the globe. It is no coincidence that debates over humanitarian intervention flourished in the years we now mark as both “post-Cold War” and “pre-9/11” -- in other words, those in which a clear justification for American military supremacy had yet to be identified.

In traversing the gap between the fantasy on offer and its twisted real-world counterpart, the logical fallback argument here is for human rights groups not to operate “humanitarian drones” themselves, but to demand that governments (or perhaps the UN, as suggested by former State Department spokesman P. J. Crowley) do so instead. And from there, how difficult is it to argue that any humanitarian drone witnessing a possible massacre in real time is morally obligated to carry and fire “humanitarian missiles”? The authors may or may not support armed humanitarian intervention, but it is difficult to see how any version of their proposal would be practical otherwise.

The idea that drones should be added to the “arsenal of human rights advocates” embodies a TEDTalk approach to politics: breezy and vapid, posing an apparently simple and low-cost idea for doing technocratic good in the world that may actually be none of those things.