Distant Intimacy: Space, Drones, and Just War

| March 2015
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This article considers how space, understood conceptually and informed by political geography, affects the ethics of targeted killing facilitated by drones. It identifies an important gap in how ethical debates about the use of armed drones have developed and why established just war categories and principles provide an insufficient context for that debate. The article develops the idea of “distant intimacy” to reveal the spatial and ethical distinctiveness of the relationship between drone operators and their targets, and it explains why this space is poorly conceptualized in just war literature. Critical engagement with the concept of space, rooted in political geography, augments established ethical critiques of drone strikes. As drone use grows, it is crucial that ethical assessment adapts to the distinctive spatial relationship between drone operators and their targets.

The article proceeds with a brief consideration of two well-studied components of the drone debate: the ethical significance of distance and the ethical implications of technology’s capacity to grant drone operators intimate knowledge of the lives of their targets, thus contributing to the ability of operators to fulfill jus in bello requirements. Subsequently, I look at how this combination of distance and intimacy establishes the importance of space as an analytical category, and suggest that space is badly neglected in just war thinking. I also argue that insights from critical political geography can assist us in clarifying the ethical significance of space and the ethical distinctiveness of the spatial relationship enabled by drones in their facilitation of targeted killing. I introduce the concept of “dronespace” to refer to the highly distinctive and radically asymmetrical relationship of “distant intimacy” between operator and target. Within dronespace, two central elements of just war theory’s understanding of ethical subjectivity—autonomy and reciprocity—are radically reworked such that the relationship of operator and target becomes exclusively one-directional. The ostensible ability of drones to enhance compliance with jus in bello norms is subverted by the construction of radical asymmetry, establishing distant intimacy as ethically problematic.

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Category: Article, Issue 29.1

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