Yemeni activist Farea Al-Muslimi testifies at a Congressional hearing about drones.
There is nothing likely more diabolically tempting to the human rights activist's mind (as distinct from the peace activist's mind) than the notion that war -- which is a given, which is legal, which even has rules -- can be made "better" or "more precise" or "more legal" or "less damaging".
And that's precisely the argument that the diabolical Joshua Foust makes to the policy community and the human rights movement which he always seeks to undermine with his latest apologia for drones, "The Liberal Case for Drones".
There's even a feel-good sub-headline, "Why human rights advocates should stop worrying about the phantom fear of autonomy". That's a reference to the idea that if machines are coded to go and do things, human agents will lose control over them, i.e. lose their autonomy, and cede it to machines, which thereby become more autonomous even beyond human agency.
To extreme groups like CODE PINK, to the legions of facile shallow anti-American re-tweeters, it's easy to put Foust down as doing the evil bidding of the Amerikan war machine and discount his sophisticated arguments -- but they're not his audience and they don't matter to him.
Foust wants to convince the technocrats in the human rights organizations and liberal press and think tanks to come around to his way of thinking, and he is already successful in some respects. While Human Rights Watch has boldly started a campaign against "Killer Robots" (like Yoshimi!), there are those in the same international law circles who find the Foustian logic compelling; they think that having a cleaner and more precise way to kill people, given that it actually isn't against international law to wage war if you follow humanitarian law, would be a boon for humankind.
"Lest You Dash Your Foot Against a Stone"
At one level, this parable is worth invoking because it's about a premise that divine (perfect) agency will work right every time and the right angelic interventions would kick in every time, and at another level it's simply about bad literalist arguments that don't take into the complexity of the divine.
In the Bible (Luke 4:9-11), Jesus Christ fasts for 40 days and nights, and then Satan tempts him three times. The first time he suggests Jesus turn a stone into a loaf of bread to show off his powers, and Jesus says "man cannot live by bread alone". The second time he shows Him all sorts of earthly kingdoms that could be His if only he would serve the devil, and Jesus dismisses him quoting scripture about serving only the Lord God.
Then Satan takes Jesus up to the top of the temple and says:
He will command his angels concerning you,
to guard you,
On their hands they will bear you up,
lest you strike your foot against a stone.
But this time, Jesus doesn't answer the substance of the temptation either literally or spiritually, as he did with the first two, but simply says "You should not put the Lord God to the test."
And what's diabolical about this -- like the idea of the perfect, liberal drone -- is that it's true that the angels would bear up any falling Jesus -- that He could count on, He could go against the laws of nature, or perhaps that would be their fulfillment. But testing spiritual powers in a frivolous and self-destructive manner like this? No, that would be wrong. Jumping in the first place would be a misuse of perfection.
Knowing that many people, even if they hate drones, dislike religion and find parables annoying, let me be less oblique: this is a story about the uses of perfection -- that you don't have to use perfection just because you can, or use it to show off perfection itself. The intellectual temptation that Foust is offering is the lure of perfection which then overshadows the not only commandments like "thou shalt not kill," but precludes an examination of whether a war without the deterrent of war's immediate effects is itself immoral (because it's beyond the reach of the premises of humanitarian law) and a course an examination of intent, effectiveness, and the psychological impact on local people that they simply won't change because somebody's been clever on Twitter.
"A Just War"
In our age of scientism, these arguments that are technically right and technically have nothing wrong with them and don't even have a sacred answer (for example, the arguments of "just war" seem to be irrelevant to the liberal drone advocates if they were efficient in ending war) -- they are the most persuasive.
The three reasons most people think to oppose drones are as follows:
o the program is secretive so you don't know what they're doing, whether they're attacking the right people -- it's under the CIA's management;
o people, even children, are killed accidently and aren't combatants and weren't meant to be targeted
o the people in these countries where drone attacks take place seem least persuaded of all those in the world that a liberal technocratic solution has been conceived justly to solve their problems -- and more insurgents spring up in the wake of those killed by drones.
But Foust answers all these objections and more, and always diabolically replies that if you don't like the wars in which these robotic machines are used, hey, go and attack the "war on terror" policy at its root and don't blame the messenger.
Foust will be happy to say that the program should be less secret, or more careful, or even that it doesn't work so well in, oh, Yemen. But he keeps on finding more and more diabolical justifications to which human rights advocates don't have good objections, and peace activists have even less (they just keep saying war is bad for children and other living things, and who could disagree?)
Jesus could tell the devil that powers shouldn't be tested needlessly "because it's blasphemous" or "you're just trolling me" but he simply says "don't tempt me any more with this stuff because it's not going to work, I won't fall for it". So ultimately, while it may seem pretty thin and not very technically impressive or profound and scholarly, the argument must still be tried that says drones are immoral for all the reasons you can think of if we are to remain human, and not "more than human". Or less.
Agency and Autonomy: Whose?
Foust dismisses the arguments about agency -- the engines of death are too removed from the people who fire them -- by impishly citing examples of weapons such as South Korean guns that can target from two miles away -- which nobody protests. Or indeed one could cite all kinds of weapons with computerized systems, and submarine missiles and so on. Even so, two miles is two miles, and a thousand or two thousand or more are, well, awfully far away.
It's not just about the agency, but the deterrence that you want war to have on the warrior. If they are on the battlefield or in situations where they are wounded or their buddies killed or they see awful scenes, they will want less war, right? Enough of all those atrocities, as they are having in Syria, and people will stop warring on each other, right? Well, no, it doesn't seem so, and there aren't even any drones in Syria. That argument could have been tried in the past, but it works less and less.
There's nothing magical or extra-terrestrial about robots -- they are just the concretization of human will -- for now. That's why I say whose autonomy is a good question to ask. So it's just the will of one set of humans against another, and it need not be made special or fetishized any more than computer programs. They can be criticized; they can be stopped; they can be modified with user imput. They have to be. So you can throw overboard some of the technological determinism by going back to the coder and his absence or morals or the buggyness of the code or the poor user experience (those people in countries who don't like the psychological feeling of drones bearing down on them from the sky).
But that only gets you so far, because like a good solutionist of our time, Foust says the drones are getting better and better, more and more accurate, and they can be made to be more perfect than humans.
Collateral Immorality and More Than Human
After all, he says -- and here the devil is surely at work -- "Collateral Murder" lets us know just how imperfect human beings are when they go about the task of finding an appropriate military target -- armed men -- and shooting at them without harming civilians. Right? Says Foust:
It is a curious complaint: A human being did not distinguish between civilians and combatants, apply the Geneva Convention, or determine an appropriate use of force during the infamous 2007 "Collateral Murder" incident in Iraq, when American helicopter pilots mistook a Reuters camera crew for insurgents and fired on them and a civilian van that came to offer medical assistance.
Of course, using Julian Assange's agitprop (which I totally take apart here) ought to be out of bounds morally all on its own in a debate like this, but such scruples wouldn't stop Foust, although he claims to be a critic of WikiLeaks and claims to have thought Cablegate was harmful.
The problem with "Collateral Murder," however, is that a journalist chose to be escorted by, or to be in the company of, armed men. Journalists endlessly debate whether this was appropriate, but it is a legitimate debate and it is at the heart of the matter -- after all, had they not been, they wouldn't have been killed. It is a battleground, after all. The soldiers in the helicopter in fact rightly picked out armed men -- their assumption that another man with a camera on his shoulder and not an RPG wasn't a combatant was wrong, but it wasn't immoral or a war crime. Reuters doesn't call it that; Human Rights Watch doesn't call it that; only the anarchists in WikiLeaks pretend that it is, for political purposes.
Foust holds out the possibility that in our forthcoming more perfect world, the drones will "just know" that they shouldn't shoot if they see something that they will know better is a camera tripod. Although he never specifies how exactly the more-perfect drones will now be better than error-prone humans (so very Foust!), the only thing I can think of is that the drone will do less shooting if it sees small forms that might be babies, or cameramen's tripods, which their facial-recognition or object-recognition programs will be very good at -- better than humans. Or if the drone can see right through the van, and see that the small forms in it are children. Right? So if they can't lock on the target as exact, they just won't shoot, right? But they don't do that now...
Foust then finds experts to fit his theories. First, if you were going to use the argument that drones are too autonomous, Foust would say, oh, but autonomy is on a spectrum -- Armin Krishnan a political scientist at the University of Texas at El Paso has parsed it all for you.
If you were going to raise objections about the general tendency of machines to malfunction (which is why you had to simply turn off and turn on again your computer, phone, Xerox machine, etc. today, maybe multiple times), why, that's just not so: Samuel Liles, a Purdue professor specializing in transnational cyberthreats and cyberforensics, discounts your argument, pointing out ""We trust software with less rigor to fly airliners all the time." (In what year do you think they will drop the "cyber" for these phenomena because so little of these things will happen in the real world?)
Yet airplanes do crash, and they don't kill the wrong people when they take off and land normally. Drones are different; they are meant to kill and do. This is ultimately like those stupid arguments that gun-rights obsessives make about car accidents killing so many more people (although of course, cars mainly drive people to their destinations and people are mainly killed accidently) -- or the argument that only four people died in Benghazi but so many more people are killed in fires every day. Yes, these kinds of "persuasive pairing" arguments are ALWAYS stupid at root.
Says Foust, about the tendency of machines to make mistakes -- and maybe these are magnified by death-dealing machines sent from far away:
The judgment and morality of individual humans certainly isn't perfect. Human decision-making is responsible for some of the worst atrocities of recent conflicts....Yet, machines are not given the same leeway: Rights groups want either perfect performance from machines or a total ban on them.
Well, why not? Rights groups are trying to stop the inevitable and they should go on trying. The UN is trying to cope -- it's already too late as lots of powers have drones now and more of the worst kind of regimes will get them, too.
I often wonder why nobody interrupts these kind of arguments of organic morality versus technocratic machinopology by saying: you know, the CIA used to make very carefully targeted assassinations. Instead of sending lots of American troops into a country, where they'd get killed, and the locals would dislike them, and the locals would get killed, they'd just surgically take out one leader, or set things up to take out just one leader, like Patrice Lumumba, and then pull the strings in a government. Imagine if you were to take this debate and put it back in the 1960s or 1970s:
The judgment and morality of individual humans certainly isn't perfect. Human decision-making is responsible for some of the worst atrocities of recent conflicts....Yet, CIA assassins are not given the same leeway: Rights groups want either perfect performance from CIA assassins or a total ban on them.
Okay then, back to autonomy...
Of course, none of this is without context. We are all going to be living in what Robert Scoble calls the "age of context" soon enough (while he means something more airy about social networks, what it boils down to as far as I can tell is a future where machines do all the learning and remembering for you and serve it up to you through wearables like Google Glass). There's going to be the Singularity, and we shall not all die, but we shall all be changed.
Before that, comes the Internet of Things where everything will be wired and talk -- and listen and watch, too. Perhaps in that bright future, you won't even need drones except as a last resort, because the Internet will find that whenever there is a nexus like "fireworks" or "jihad video on Youtube" or "pressure cooker" or "big black knapsack," the door will lock tight or the car won't even start or road blocks will spring up out of nowhere.
Until then, there's Yemen.
And here where Foust's creepy immorality was really on display recently -- and now it isn't.
I was following his tweets and copious re-tweeters one day in February, when he began sparring nastily (as he always does) with a Yemeni activist namedFarea Al-muslimi whose Twitter handle is @almuslimi
I don't know this Yemeni activist's background and I don't know whether he's an extremist or preaches "defensive jihad" but if so, it isn't visible. He appears to be a man who is simply disturbed by the extrajudicial executions the United States is perpetrating in his homeland, and that seems legitimate, whatever his back story might be.
Al-muslimi gets into a Twit-fight with Foust, who is merrilly going his usual drone-apologetics way and tweets:
almuslimi Farea Al-muslimi
@joshuafoust @gregorydjohnsen 8- stop ALL u r dn pollitically in yemen. 9- every place u shot drone, go build hospital/school.
Some other people chime in and say "stop tweeting from your couch about our country, you dont know anything".
Foust then savages the guy as if there is something false about the aposition of drone-killings versus school-building simply because the American miltiary does both.
I remember being appalled at the intensity and viciousness of this exchange and I wanted to copy it and put it up on Storify as a very good example of just how nasty Foust can be -- as any of us who have Twit-fought him know for a fact.
But when I went back through his feed now, it was gone. He deleted the tweets. In fact, he shows only two tweets for all of February. Now, it's possible that there's a glitch on Twitter. But I think they're gone.
Using Topsy, I can see Al-Muslimi firing off many tweets -- the sort of rapid-fire that you do if you are in a debate, not just talking to yourself. There most definitely were answers from Foust, but you can't see them now.
An indirect evidence of them comes from the fellow cc'd -- @gregorydjohnsen -- who writes a tweet about how he regrets their fight because "both of them are smart guys" -- although Foust was most assuredly nastily to this guy who had the upperhand street-cred wise as it was his country where the drones were falling.
One of the more poignant things he said was:
u can't train me on rule of law wth ur right hnd - USAID- & shoot me without a court by ur left hand- drones.
Well, exactly. Who couldn't put it better? But Foust lobbed off something nasty about false apositives again -- now deleted.
Al-Muslimi then wrote:
@gregorydjohnsen @joshuafoust joshua, do u knw even wher my village is n the map? plz STOP talking abt wat u have NO idea abt.! 4 truth, ...
This was part of an argument, but it's now erased. We have only MuckRake:
What journalists are saying about #Yemen on Twitter - Muck Rack
for those who enjoy these things: @almuslimi & @joshuafoust are currently having a twitter argument abt US counterterrorism policy in #yemen · February 28 ...
Why would Foust erase those tweets? Did he have a change of heart that he was so nasty? But he's nasty in exactly the same way to so many people...
No, it's merely because suddenly, Al-Muslimi was hot. He actually came from Yemen to the US to testify in Congress. Now, Foust was sucking up and re-tweeting:
RT @Yemen411: Farea @almuslimi having a moment before he speaks @ the Senate Judiciary hearing on drones in #Yemen http://t.co/gqtMzA4krY
He even acknowledged that they had "disagreed" but that he was impressed with him.
Well, Twitter. Whoever looks at past Twitter streams? You can't put your foot in the same stream twice... And @almuslimi likely doesn't care about this anyway, as he has much larger problems to worry about. I can only say, I saw what you did there...
Human Rights Drones
Meanwhile, Foust assures us that drones are veritable instruments of human rights compliance: "In many cases, human rights would actually benefit from more autonomy -- fewer mistakes, fewer misfires, and lower casualties overall. "
Yet I'm not persuaded about the auto-magic way in which we get these precision targets that first depend on HUMINT and even re-checking from the ground.
And while Foust doesn't concede it or even mention it, it seems to me the precision and human rights capacity could only happen if the machines are programmed not to fire if they get to a house and see that the terrorist target is surrounded by his wife and children. Right? Is that what he means? Because isn't that really the problem, the only way you can get these people more often than not is by attacking them in civilian type of settings because they don't stay on the "battlefield," whatever that is.
That's why there is a total illusion here, regardless of autonomy and precision -- it's not really about the drone itself. It's about the need to be precise *in a civilian setting* and only blow up somebody, say, in a car on a road, not when they reach a farmhouse.
"It Should Not Be"
In any event, the technocrats will never be satisfied with emotional answers, but in politics, the psychological matters. Sen. Markey is running for office again, and when the people of Boston let it be known that they didn't want Tamerlan Tsarnaev buried in their state because they had already been convinced he committed the Boston marathon bombing, Markey didn't say, as a good liberal Democrat, "we must be civilized; we must properly bury even our dead enemies"; instead he said "“If the people of Massachusetts do not want that terrorist to be buried on our soil, then it should not be.” And that's how it was, he was buried in an unmarked grave in Virginia. There's all kinds of things Markey could have said to try to lead and to educate -- he didn't, not on this.
Ultimately, the arguments of drone apologists are about emotions, too, because they say that the concretized will of one set of people in the form of automated robots should prevail over other sets of people who feel they should not be used and they are immoral. And it's the lack of democracy and due process as much of the emotional and spiritual feeling of revulsion that matter in the political mix of how these weapons will be controlled; overriding those very real considerations and feelings is illiberal, especially when the goal is to prevent the killing of innocents.
In his testimony, Al-Muslimi speaks to an interesting problem -- the lack of knowledge by local farmers as to why some leader is being targeted -- they may not associate him with terrorism -- and the fact that their own local security chiefs are connected to him and doing business with them. They are angry because they could have been accidently with him when the drone hit; they also feel they could have arrested him and questioned him about his wrong-doing and made a more careful and durable solution. In fact, their own security chiefs in cahoots with the terrorist were the problem -- there was a texture and layers to this story that even the smartest drone couldn't figure out; what, it's supposed to hover while people hold a town meeting?