What the Drone Debate Is Really About

It’s not privacy or state power.

Protesters hold signs and chant slogans outside the White House in Washington on April 13, 2013 during a demonstration against the use of dones against Islamic militants and other perceived enemies of the US around the world.
Protesters demonstrate against drones last month outside the White House.

Photo by Nicholas Kamm/AFP/Getty Images

This article arises from Future Tense, a partnership of Slate, the New America Foundation, and Arizona State University. On Tuesday, May 7, Future Tense will host an event in Washington, D.C., on the use of drones in the United States. For more information and to RSVP, visit the New America Foundation’s website.

The term drone draws attention, elicits passions, and sparks heated discussions. Often the debate about drones flattens the complexity of real policy issues as the questions asked demand impossible answers, “Are drones good or bad?” or “Are you for or against drones?” Not surprisingly, this approach heightens the tensions attached to debate about drones, turning conversations into arguments and echoing the polarization that characterizes so much of contemporary political discourse.

The intensity of interest in drones arose some years after they became a key element of U.S. military operations abroad. Interestingly, after more than a decade at war, drones remain the only military system within an extraordinarily advanced arsenal to have captivated popular attention. And they have done so at a time when the public has grown weary of war and the deep confusions surrounding the objectives, value, and purpose of these conflicts.

For many within the military, the intensity of the debate about drones in combat has been perplexing. As they often point out, drones are simply one of a number of military platforms upon which information-gathering technology or weapons are deployed. For tactical purposes, it may make little difference whether a Hellfire missile is launched from a fighter jet or a drone. And, as military experts and knowledgeable observers emphasize, drones do not operate independently—rather, they are part of a complex, multilayered system in which particular technologies, drones and others, are useful only as integrated within a larger strategic vision.

That said, much of the discussion of drones focuses not on their use by the military within defined war zones, where domestic and international law applies, but rather to their use by the CIA and other organizations in places where the legality of their deployment is under question, where data are minimal and where secrecy prevails. In this way, covert drone strikes are the latest in a series of interrelated issues—including torture, black sites, and extraordinary rendition—that reflect directly on the meaning, impact, and ethics of U.S. strategy (once called the global war on terror). Yet, even as drones are linked to existing questions of the appropriateness, legitimacy, and potential illegality of U.S. action, they are the only element of this critique linked to advanced technology, with its complex evocation of promise and danger. Drones have become the iconic public image of the U.S. government’s international projection of military force, during a complex and uncertain time when support is waning and there is great confusion as to the purpose of these ongoing conflicts.

More recently, public debate on drones has turned to their current and potential use within our country. And, in this context as well, drones have produced tense discussions about multiple issues including protecting privacy, respecting core constitutional rights, and enabling potential abuses of state power. In response, there are demands for increased regulation as well as concerns that new rules will have a profoundly negative effect on our society. Many worry that the use of drones in our country will usher in a new era of intrusive state surveillance and may even be used as a means of attacking and killing American citizens here at home.

For those who currently use drones or advocate for their expanded deployment—whether for military or civilian applications—these debates are deeply frustrating. They point out that drones are simply machines, neither good nor bad, not the sort of issue for which one should seek either support or rejection. They point to drones’ capacity to safely, effectively and inexpensively fight fires, monitor weather patterns, spray crops, and provide ongoing real-time information on hundreds of issues.

This is why there is an ongoing effort to shift the language of the debate by replacing the popular term drone with one of a number of arguably more accurate—and less politically loaded—alternatives including unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV), remotely piloted vehicle (RPV), or remotely piloted aircraft (RPA). Still, drone remains the default term and will be for the foreseeable future.

In fact, the lure and power of the word drone provides insight into the true nature and intensity of the debate. Drones have come to us from foreign battlefields and migrated to the domestic policy environment. While drones may be simple and varied machines, the ones we know best bear names that suggest both danger and brutality, the Predator (MQ-1) and the Reaper (MQ-9). Drones embody the glory of American technological superiority and innovation (at least for now) and appear to many as an ideal tool for facing a difficult, distant, and elusive enemy. Yet, woven into their usefulness abroad is a sense that they are the first expressions of a new reality defined by multiple related technologies whose transformative capacities are as dangerous here as they have been proved to be abroad.

Drones captivate us. Their sleekly disturbing look, an odd combination of the fragile and the deadly, produces both fascination and fear. The word drone highlights these qualities, depicting a machine that is solitary, potentially autonomous, ever present, and quietly menacing. The truth is that those who suggest that public debate needs to focus clearly on what drones really are and really do, are missing the point. Facts alone will not resolve the heated discussions. Rather the idea of drones and the resulting questions, complex and varied as they are, are enmeshed in powerful narratives of fear and mistrust as drones have become a central element of the contemporary American political imagination.

The drone debate is not only about targeted killings abroad or potential invasions of privacy at home; it is about how this emerging technology has come to symbolize the disorder, threat, uncertainty, and fear of our rapidly changing world. The challenge we face as a society is not simply how to regulate drones (which is clearly necessary) but rather how to learn from the passions they inspire such that we connect serious policy debate on emerging technologies with a respect and acknowledgement for the very real fears of so many.