What Judaism Says About Drones
Jewish tradition is weighted definitively against pacifism. But does that mean drone warfare is kosher?
Drones have the potential to allow totalitarian governments an unprecedented capacity to observe the actions of their subjects, and they likely will also give them the capacity to kill their political opponents with less risk of politically dangerous collateral damage. These are the same capacities that make drones attractive to the United States. Should the destructive potential of widespread drone use militate against our development and use of them? A Jewish approach to drones would take responsibility for not only our own deployments, but also for the ways in which our precedent will reverberate.
2) To what extent should one object to particular weapons because they provide the potential and temptation to abuse, even if they have highly legitimate uses?
Rabbinic law is largely composed of seyagim, legal “fences” erected to prevent individuals or communities from setting foot on slippery slopes. Thus, chicken may not be cooked with milk lest one come to cook beef with milk; one may not read by candlelight on Shabbat, in case one might come to adjust the flame; and one should avoid romantic precursors with forbidden sexual partners. Along these lines, a strong Jewish argument can be made for proactively regulating weapons to prevent potential abuses.
Such an argument unfolds as follows: Drone warfare has enabled the United States and Israel to carry out preemptive attacks outside their borders against persons allegedly threatening their security, at very low risk to their own personnel. The Obama Administration has used them to kill an American citizen abroad who recruited suicide bombers, even though that citizen had not engaged in violence himself and had never been tried by a U.S. court. It is likely that, were drones unavailable, a simple cost-benefit analysis would have prevented many of those attacks. But drones dramatically change that equation, and one might conclude that no leader could withstand the pressure to use them in deeply problematic circumstances. As such, the only way to prevent such alluring abuse would be to impose strict regulations on drone use, carefully circumscribing how they can be deployed.
3) Do drones make the prospect of perpetual, if undeclared, war more likely, and is this objectionable?
Over the past 50 years, the concept of “declaring war” has generally declined, but this decline has been particularly marked in the United States, for political reasons. Since the U.S. Constitution reserves to Congress the right to declare war, the weakening of that concept has led to an increase in executive authority, such that executives can fight decade-long police actions without a declaration. Drones offer the capacity to accomplish military objectives without committing troops to foreign soil, and therefore likely without need for explicit congressional approval. If one opposes this trend, drones are a troubling development.
This is indeed a vexing issue. However, it is not one that can be resolved by resorting to Jewish texts. In fact, there is little or no direct Jewish precedent for the idea that the status of war is created verbally, by the declaration of one or more sides, rather than simply by circumstances. From the Jewish vantage point, what matters is not a formal announcement, but whether or not there is an ongoing violent conflict between significant political entities. In other words, Jewish law has little stake in whether war is officially declared.
Nor is there extensive Jewish discussion of whether it is best to distinguish sharply between war and peace—as the United States previously has—rather than see the two as existing on a continuum. Each of these models has its pros and cons. A binary war/peace system has the advantage of barring violence in the absence of any formal declaration of war. But it runs the risk of encouraging significant escalation beyond immediate political or security goals once war is declared and all bets are off. By contrast, a more flexible model of war and peace decreases the risk of such escalation at the cost of constant lower levels of violence. Drones make the latter model more likely, at least until the drones are explicitly and formally regulated by international law. But from a Jewish perspective, whether this is advisable is a purely political question outside the scope of traditional sources.
To sum up, I see no Jewish reason to object intrinsically to warfare by remotely piloted vehicle any more than one would object to warfare by tank or naval destroyer. However, I see reasonable arguments for believing that the availability of drones makes certain forms of problematic policy choices more likely and that, in the absence of proactive regulation, drone warfare will have more pernicious consequences as the technology becomes more widely available.
I don’t think there are particularly Jewish ways to discuss the likelihood of those consequences; those are practical questions to be addressed by experts, not rabbis. But it seems to me that Judaism can contribute to the conversation by insisting that the conversation include long-term and indirect as well as short-term and direct effects. As Rabbi Shimon says in Pirkei Avot 2:9: “Which is the straight path to which human beings should cleave? The one that considers consequences.”
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