Aren’t Drones Better than All-Out War?

PRISM article

I wrote the following article, which was published Monday by Prism Magazine:


Posted by  on Monday, September 30, 2013

by Sharon Delgado

Beale Air Force Base near Marysville, Calif., is the home of Global Hawk surveillance drones, which identify targets for armed drone attacks.  Drones are remote-control, pilotless, aerial vehicles that are controlled by “pilots” who sit at computer terminals in the United States and launch attacks in countries half a world away.

I was arrested last October for crossing the line onto federal property during an anti-drone demonstration at Beale.  During this act of civil disobedience, I was wearing my clergy collar as a symbol of the authority of the Holy Spirit and the presence of the Prince of Peace.  I was arraigned with four others for misdemeanor trespass, which carries a penalty of up to six months in jail.

At a party I attended a few weeks later, a woman approached me and brought up the topic of drones.  She said, “I believe in peace.  I’ve gone to anti-war demonstrations.  But isn’t it better to use drones to take out a few bad guys than to have an all-out war?”

She was struggling with whether the use of drones in targeted killings could be justified.  Her question reminded me of the argument of Caiphus before the Sanhedrin so long ago:  “It is expedient that one man die for the people, and that the whole nation perish not” (John 11:50).  The case against Jesus was built upon the claim that he was a threat to national security.   The argument that it is expedient to use drones for the sake of national security is a big part of the conversation today.


How can Christians sort through the moral complexities reflected in public perceptions and attitudes about drone warfare?   The teaching and example of Jesus can provide a compass with which to navigate our way to clarity and solid ground.

Jesus didn’t talk about expediency but about loving God and neighbor.  He even said that we should love our enemies, a radical idea both at the time and today in the age of international terrorism.

You’ve seen the bumper sticker that states: “When Jesus said, ‘Love your enemies,’ I think he probably meant don’t kill them.”  In reality, however, Christians differ in their beliefs about whether or not war or execution by the state can be considered just.  If we could target and use surgical strikes to assassinate terrorists who are planning to attack the United States, wouldn’t that prevent an even greater harm?  Wouldn’t that be morally justified?

This question is debatable, but the idea that US drones are simply “taking out a few bad guys” is erroneous. Only 2 percent of drone victims are so-called high-level targets.  Our nation’s “signature strikes” target groups that fit a particular profile.  In some regions of Western Pakistan all military-age men are considered militants and therefore legitimate targets, which makes accurate accounting of civilian deaths impossible.

US drone strikes in Pakistan, Yemen, Somalia, Iraq, and Afghanistan have killed thousands of people, many of them civilians, including children, with many more injured.  These people are our neighbors, precious souls for whom Christ died.  These “extrajudicial” killings take place without trial, judge, or jury, often in countries where we are not at war.  Although the Obama administration justifies the legality of such attacks, many claim that drone attacks violate international law.

Jesus said, “Do to others as you would have them do to you” (Luke 6:31), but friends who have traveled to rural Pakistan tell about whole communities being terrorized by drones, where people are afraid to gather for weddings or funerals, afraid to send their terrified children to school.  Our drones have engaged in secondary strikes, attacking the same target twice.  This makes it difficult for emergency response teams and would-be good Samaritans to rescue victims or alleviate their suffering.

Drone attacks foster anti-American sentiment and create future terrorists.  Violence begets violence.  Our policies are creating enemies that may last for generations.

Furthermore, over 70 countries now have drones.  If the United States acts with impunity, other countries will follow our example.  This could lead to a drone arms race and a complete breakdown of international law.  What we do to others, they may in the future do to us.

Who is responsible for the use of drones in targeted killings and signature strikes?  We can’t blame just the drone operators, some of whom suffer from PTSD.  Those responsible include religious leaders who, like Caiaphas, provide moral justification for the preservation of empire at any cost; public officials like Pilate, who wash their hands of culpability; corporate lobbyists who promote increased military funding for high-tech weaponry; an out-of-control military industrial complex that has taken on a life of its own; a corporate media that both interprets and shapes reality; and a public that suffers from moral confusion, the failure of critical thinking, and resignation to the powers of this world.

Jesus ushered in a new way of being, not based on domination and violence but on love of God and neighbor.  May those of us who follow Jesus live and love accordingly, for the well-being of the world and for the glory of God.

Sharon Delgado is a United Methodist minister, the executive director of Earth Justice Ministries, and author of Shaking the Gates of Hell:  Faith-Led Resistance to Corporate Globalization (Augsburg Fortress Press, 2007).

See the article at Prism Magazine. 

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