Why you should care
Because the president of the United States kills people.
What would you consider someone who’s killed more than 100 children? Disturbed? Mentally unstable? How about one of the greatest orators of all time?
President Barack Obama has killed 7,548 people since taking office, most in Pakistan, Afghanistan, Yemen and Libya, according to the London-based Bureau of Investigative Journalism’s research into the U.S. drone-strike program. Up to 894 of them have been civilians, including as many as 110 children. And Obama has done it while sitting in the White House. Indeed, during his years in office, Obama sharply expanded the use of this counterrorism tactic. What about POTUS 45? Before he became president-elect, Donald Trump’s remarks were limited to suggesting drone patrols along the Canadian and Mexican borders — hardly a stirring national debate about the morality or long-term effectiveness of these remote-control kills. And Hillary Clinton was also a strong supporter of targeted drone strikes during her tenure as secretary of state. So, the millions of Americans who voted had precious little information as to where the candidates stood on this litmus test.
When you push a button and kill people thousands of miles away, it almost feels antiseptic.
Ed Kinane, Veterans for Peace
Here’s where I stand. Technology allows a form of warfare unlike any other in history, whereby the commander in chief can issue an order from a leather chair in an air-conditioned office and, nearly instantaneously, annihilate an enemy thousands of miles away. Given that a vast and insurmountable distance — both physical and metaphorical — separates the Situation Room and the target, it’s critical that the president understands the vivid reality of human killing human. Therefore, perhaps whoever occupies the Oval Office should have killed in order to kill. If that’s not yet the case, then the incoming commander in chief could meet the requirement by killing an innocent civilian face to face — say, right after the inauguration ceremony.
If you think I must be a lunatic, I’m afraid you’ll have to transfer the epithet to the late Harvard law professor Roger Fisher, who proposed a variation of this idea during the Cold War: The nuclear codes should be stored not in a briefcase, but in a capsule embedded in the heart of an innocent person. If the president decides to unleash nuclear Armageddon, he or she must first rip the codes from the innocent’s still-beating heart. “Technology disintermediates the decision from the consequences, and so Roger’s proposal was a way to … rehumanize decision-making,” says William Ury, a negotiation expert and Fisher’s mentee at the time the professor first floated his proposal. Ed Kinane, an anti-drone campaigner with Veterans for Peace, puts it in blunter terms: “When you push a button and kill people thousands of miles away, it almost feels antiseptic.”
It may be uncomfortable to acknowledge, but humans do not have levelheaded, analytical moral judgment, according to the latest research in moral psychology. The principle of action aversion holds that we might attach very different moral value to an action than to its consequences. In other words, “the action of just pushing a button and the action of physically [killing a person] feel very different at a visceral level,” regardless of whether the consequence is the same or even worse, says Harvard psychology professor and leading action-aversion researcher Fiery Cushman. Evidence suggests that a majority of people are unable to shoot to kill if they can see their victims. Similarly, “there’s a wealth of evidence that it would make it a hell of a lot harder” to launch a nuclear strike if the codes were kept in a person’s heart instead of a briefcase, Cushman says. Yeah, no kidding.
Some would say that making it harder for the commander in chief to take military action might be a bad idea. “If you accept the proposition that [the expansion of the Pakistani Taliban] is a threat that has to be confronted, I see the drones as the best worst option,” says Brian Williams, professor of Islamic history at the University of Massachusetts, Dartmouth, and author of Predators: The CIA’s Drone War on al Qaeda. Williams rejects the notion that modern warfare has desensitized the act of killing: Drone pilots “have tremendous proximity and intimacy with their targets,” he says, as do those watching on a screen in the White House.
More than half of U.S. presidents served in the military, but that historical trend seems to be ending, so it’s worth considering whether a civilian who has never witnessed or participated in combat is morally qualified to order the use of lethal force. And this needn’t be a proposal just for pacifists: If we elect leaders to kill enemies strategically on behalf of the United States, then we better make sure they are up to the job.
Thought this election season couldn’t be topped for drama? How about a bit of bloodshed on Inauguration Day?