Stephen Kent

President Barack Obama’s speech in which he presented his long-awaited policy for use of drones in targeted strikes has shifted the focus from the policy to how well it may be observed and enforced.

The president, in a May 23 speech to the National Defense University, said the new policy will restrict how and when the U.S. will launch targeted drone strikes as part of counterterrorism activities to target only imminent threats and limit civilian casualties.

The use of unmanned aerial vehicles to kill terrorists around the world “raises serious moral questions” Bishop Richard E. Pates of Des Moines, Iowa, said in a May 17 letter to the president’s national security advisor and to the chairs of relevant Senate and House committees. Bishop Pates, chairman of the U.S. bishops’ Committee on International Justice and Peace, sent his letter less than a week before Obama’s speech.

In his letter, Bishop Pates drew the distinction between war and criminal activity. He said counterterrorism is primarily a law enforcement activity that may at times require use of the military. “To name it a war may overemphasize the utility of military force and underappreciate the other critical strategies to address terrorism,” he said.

He brought up just war principles and weighed drone use in relation to discrimination, imminence of threat, proportionality and probability of success.

In this case, the president and bishops appear to find common ground. Obama said. “To say a military tactic is legal, or even effective, is not to say it is wise or moral in every instance. For, the same human progress that gives us the technology to strike half a world away also demands the discipline to constrain that power — or risk abusing it.”

Bishop Pates said the drone policy deserves public discussion. Obama seemed to agree.

Few dispute that drones are effective. They are accurate. A drone essentially is a reusable guided missile as the means to deliver explosives to destroy property and kill humans. The latest discussion, then, is more about the means employed than the actions.

There seems to be an underlying sense that unmanned attacks are wrong. Perhaps part of the problem comes from ethical standards learned in Saturday movie matinees concerning shooting an unarmed opponent. Are they given a chance to surrender? Shouldn’t the attacker be at the same risk as the target? For lack of a better term, it’s unsportsmanlike, not the “mano a mano” of aerial dogfights nor the risk taken by bombers flying through flak.

“By narrowly targeting our action against those who want to kill us and not the people they hide among, we are choosing the course of action least likely to result in the loss of innocent life,” Obama said in his speech.

Today there is much less collateral damage. There is no comparison to the casualties that resulted from the indiscriminate bombing of the past, including firebombing entire Japanese cities in World War II and the carpet-bombing of Vietnam.

A disturbing undercurrent followed the Obama speech.

“A mere promise that the U.S. will work within established guidelines that remain secret provides little confidence that the U.S. is complying with international law,” said Kenneth Roth, executive director of Human Rights Watch.

This, and similar skepticism, is evidence the issue is about more than the means; it is about trust.

If we can’t trust leaders, we have a greater problem than rules for using weapons. A nation must trust its leaders. That is why the emphasis on values and ethics during election campaigns is important. We need to be able to have standards to judge those who lead and would lead the country.


Kent is the retired editor of archdiocesan newspapers in Omaha and Seattle. He can be contacted at: