On Drones, Part 1: Justice Should be Impartial, not Mechanical

We usually blame Hitler for the Holocaust, and he deserves blame, of course. But he didn’t commit genocide with his own hands. He ordered it. It’s hard for me to think that the German soldiers and citizens individually responsible for all that murder were all cold-blooded heartless psychopaths. Something had to be inserted between them and the lives they were taking in order to stifle their human sympathies and assuage their human guilt. That apparatus was mechanized procedure and its human counterpart—bureaucracy.

Think about it. The administration of German orders was carried out in a carefully compartmentalized program of divided labor. Some soldiers took some prisoners to the shower room and closed the door. Did they kill the prisoners? Not really. They just put them in a room. Then some other soldiers pull a lever or turn a dial. Did they kill the prisoners? No. They just pulled a lever.  No one has to take personal responsibilty. They were just following orders. Most of them knew what was going on perhaps, but they didn’t have  to be faced with the harsh reality of it. The distant murderers didn’t have to look their victims in the eye.

The use of drones is an even further step toward the total emancipation of genocide from human sentiment and judgment. When used for strictly military purposes in the obvious defense of a country from an armed aggressor, drones may have a place. They would save the lives of soldiers. But we must recognize even in this case that the use of drones has a price. Have you noticed that the wars of old, though bloody, were far more humane? The field of battle and the combatants were carefully delineated. Civilians were strictly off-limits. When one army was vanquished, terms were agreed on. There was honor here. And when men squared off in a field and had to look each other in the face, the price of war was obvious. The dead bodies were at your feet and their blood was literally on your hands.

The War Between the States is perhaps when that old chivalry finally died. It was challenged and dsimantled by the new capacities of mechanization, and it has never been recovered. Now, whole cities can be destroyed with the push of a button. And no one feels responsible. Everyone is just doing his job.

I’m not recommending a return to hand-to-hand warfare. But there are few things more incorrectable than mechanical injustice. An assembly line can do anything without feeling. It doesn’t matter to a machine whether it hammers together a million widgets or murders a million babies.

Individual law enforcers should have to look people in the eye. They should be impartial, no doubt. If justice needs to be executed, they should do their jobs even when their heartstrings are being tugged on. But the mechanical administration of justice allows for almost unprecedented acts of injustice. Machines do not understand nuance. They don’t understand the distinction between the letter of the law and the spirit. And the men who enforce the law need to see the consequences of the law they are enforcing firsthand. Most good men would not be able to bring themselves to commit firsthand what they regularly commit virtually. So if justice becomes little more than a virtual exercise, a glorified video game, a pull of a lever, a mechanical procedure—and there is no individual responsibility—there will be no boundaries to the injustice we can achieve with the utmost industrial precision.