Drones are everywhere. They are blasting suspected al-Qaida militants in Pakistan, Yemen, and Somalia. They are menacing China. They are being shot down in Israel. They are hovering outside of homes in America and spying on their residents. And they are forcing us to rethink some basic legal principles—for good reason, because drones are making the old ones obsolete.
Drones have existed for decades, but in recent years they have become ubiquitous. Some people celebrate drones as an effective and humane weapon because they can be used with precision to slay enemies and spare civilians, and argue that they pose no special risks that cannot be handled by existing law. Indeed, drones, far more than any other weapon, enable governments to comply with international humanitarian law by avoiding civilian casualties when attacking enemies. Drone defenders also mocked Rand Paul for demanding that the Obama administration declare whether it believed that it could kill people with drones on American territory. Existing law permits the police to shoot criminals who pose an imminent threat to others; if police can gun down hostage takers and rampaging shooters, why can’t they drone them down too?
While there is much to be said in favor of these arguments, drone technology poses a paradox that its defenders have not confronted. Because drones are cheap, effective, riskless for their operators, and adept at minimizing civilian casualties, governments may be tempted to use them too frequently.
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