Drones may be revolutionary now, but, like all military-funded technological innovations, they surely paint a portrait, however tentative, of a future society that is even braver than the one we inhabit today. Are we on the verge of a world in which cars, planes, and other forms of transportation are operated remotely? Google is already working on a driverless or self-driving car. Such a vehicle, according to Google’s Executive Chairman Eric Schmidt, may actually be available in our lifetime.
Just as the U.S. government justifies its drone strikes with the argument that it is at war with al Qaeda and its affiliates, one could imagine that India in the not too distant future might launch such attacks against suspected terrorists in Kashmir, or China might strike Uighur separatists in western China, or Iran might attack Baluchi nationalists along its border with Pakistan.
But without an international framework governing the use of drone attacks, the United States is setting a dangerous precedent for other nations with its aggressive and secretive drone programs in Pakistan and Yemen, which are aimed at suspected members of al Qaeda and their allies.
This moment may almost be here. China took the United States by surprise in November 2010 at the Zhuhai Air Show, where it unveiled 25 drone models, some of which were outfitted with the capability to fire missiles.
It remains unclear just how many of China’s drones are operational and how many of them are still in development, but China is intent on catching up with the United States’ rapidly expanding drone arsenal.
President George W. Bush declared a “War on Terror” 11 years ago, the Pentagon had fewer than 50 drones. Now, it has many.
As Bush embarked on that war, the United States had never used armed drones in combat. The first U.S. armed drone attack, which appears to be the first such strike ever, took place in mid-November 2001 and killed the military commander of al Qaeda, Mohammed Atef, in Afghanistan.
Since then, the CIA has used drones equipped with bombs and missiles hundreds of times to target suspected militants in Pakistan and Yemen.
Human ingenuity has come a long way when we can fight a war from the comfort of our offices or be safely driven by intelligent machines. But why can’t we deploy such genius in the pursuit of a better life for our fellow humans on this planet? One answer may be narrow self interests; another may be the forces that divide us. Religions, national myths of greatness, and wealth can provide solace and a sense of security; but, in the end, they hamper our quest for real wealth, deprive us from a more capacious sense of self, and prevent us from experiencing a more fulfilling form of spirituality.