See No Evil: Drones and Public Opinion

| October 2013
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In 2012, U.S. drone strikes occured most often in which nation?

If you don’t know, don’t feel too bad. You’re not alone. You could just admit it and join the 27 percent of Americans who report that they haven’t a clue. Or you could guess, give the wrong answer, and join the 60 percent of Americans who just plain get it wrong.

Many people know this answer first-hand, but they tend not to be Americans, and for them the answer has a non-trivial significance.

A large majority (65 percent) of Americans claim that they have heard a lot about the U.S. drone program in recent months. This is a significant increase from a year ago. But what they’ve heard hasn’t furnished the answer to this most basic question about the purpose and nature of targeted killings. This makes sense, since the media often focuses on what is most important to its readers: namely, themselves. This is why the death of Americans in targeted killings dominated the Brennan hearings and why the mere prospect of domestic surveillance has taken center stage in the drone debate. But this means that most of us remain ill-equipped to explain the when and where of U.S. drone strikes as they currently take place.

It would be convenient to blame this ignorance on government secrecy, on the rise of a new Orwellian state. But this would understate the freedom that the average American citizen still has over what she reads and what she thinks. Citizens are still free to read widely and inform themselves about the drone campaign, but they simply choose not to. This is probably because such willful ignorance plays an important role in the maintenance of our moral and political worldviews and the cognitive dissonance that tends to define them.

When it comes to drone strikes, Americans often have to juggle two mutually exclusive beliefs. On the one hand, only a quarter of respondents believe that drone strikes are legal. On the other, an astounding majority of people still approve of these targeting practices. This may indicate something important about the power of laws when they go unenforced, but more clearly suggests that the legality of actions tend to matter much less to people who do not face the consequences when these laws are broken.

In our minds, an unknown number of citizens in some unknown country have faced the unknown consequences of these unknown strikes.

And perhaps it’s best (for us) if we keep it that way.

As Aristotle says, “sufferings are pitiable when they appear close at hand.” When they are not close at hand, or occur in some distant land to some foreign people, we couldn’t care less.

In the early 1940s the U.S. government chose Oak Ridge, Tennessee, as the production site for the Manhattan project, a project that would eventually produce the atom bomb. At the entrance of this site stood a rather odd billboard with a picture of three monkeys, Uncle Sam, and the following text: “WHAT YOU SEE HERE, WHAT YOU HEAR HERE, WHAT YOU DO HERE, WHEN YOU LEAVE HERE, LET IT STAY HERE.” This was an explicit directive to maintain the project’s secrecy, the type of secrecy that tends to bother many of the critics of the U.S. drone program. The message of the three monkeys has in our modern day taken on a slightly different connotation. It is used to describe those people who deal with injustice by turning a blind eye to it. Unfortunately, this describes much of the public opinion concerning drone warfare.

The message of the three monkeys, however, has a slightly older and more hopeful meaning. Confucius, the probable originator of this saying, meant it to be taken literally, as a directive to be good—to look carefully at the world, to see no evil because we had done our best to eradicate it.

This is no easy task, but it starts with answering some easy questions.

So for starters: the answer is Pakistan.


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