Monday, February 11, 2013

Way beyond drones.

The late philosopher Philippa Foot first posed her classic trolley problem back in 1978. While there have been refinements since, the aim remains to test our moral judgment.  To that end, some version of two hypothetical are offered for consideration.  In this one, a trolley car is speeding down the tracks, its driver having lost control of the brakes.  A short distance away, five workers are standing on those tracks totally oblivious to the impending danger.  If you do nothing, they will all be killed.  But you happen to be standing next to a lever that would divert the trolley to an alternate track.  There is one worker standing on the new path who will surely die if you pull the lever, but five others would be spared.  Is it okay to pull the lever?  Alternatively, the runaway trolley is speeding towards the same five workers, but this time you happen to be on a bridge above the track, standing behind a very hefty stranger.  You calculate that if you push him off the bridge, the trolley will be derailed by his size.  He’ll die, but five will be saved.  Is it okay to push him?

I cite the trolley problem in my Transcenders' chapter on morality.  Exposed to its inherent moral dilemma, respondents in countless research studies invariably opt for the lever over the push — extrapolating to the present they prefer drones to boots on the ground.  To say the least, this is not a happy choice; only that taking one life rather than five seems preferable.  What's revealing, and perhaps equally important, is that it appears we'd rather not be directly engaged.  Pushing a person requires physical contact.  I point out in my chapter that the now much discredited Donald Rumsfeld clearly understood our citizen psyche when he pushed hard for more mechanized warfare.  Shock and Awe was a crude approach to that.  Of course, keeping boots off the ground (that was the plan) even with targeted bombing still cost untold innocent Iraqi lives.  Drones with their claimed precise and more contained destruction may offer something else, but let's not kid ourselves.  They too can cause collateral damage and at a heavy human cost.

Bush and Rumsfeld also mandated that Americans not be exposed to coffins landing in Andrews.  For obvious reasons, they didn't want us to see the losses of a controversial and misbegotten war that was not going as "planned".  And, truth be told, many of us didn't want to know.  The old hear no evil, see evil, and speak no evil monkey's heart still beats strong.  That accounts in part for the fact that there were so few protests against recent conflicts, something I've discussed in earlier posts.  Just as enhanced interrogation is a very dubious way of gaining useful information, so too is solving problems by the sword.  We may rail against the former saying it's wrong, immoral if you will, but we acquiesce to the second as a necessary evil.  And in that we'd rather pull levers than push someone over the bridge.

So drones and the guided missiles before them fit well into both a time when technology makes them possible and our national mindset.  We increasingly want to keep our distance from the conflict.  It's so much easier to write a letter to the editor, not to mention post a blog, then to stand in the midst of the fray.  Congressman John Lewis got bloodied marching across the Edmund Pettus Bridge in 1965; in 2013 we'd rather fire off a tweet.  Drones came to the fore this past week during John O. Brennan's CIA director confirmation hearings.  That didn't reflect widespread citizen outcry against this latest mode of warfare.  Rather Senators seemed to be concerned most that they were out of the loop.  To be sure a few expressed concerns that transcended that, but one had the sense that some on the committee were using the issue of targeting American Citizens abroad as a smoke screen to hide a more political agenda.

There seems little doubt that how and when we use this new form of military hardware needs far more scrutiny than we have thus far given it.  We remain locked in a war on terrorism mindset (even if that designation has been abandoned) just as for years we were locked into a Cold War one at an earlier time.  Setting up an overarching enemy may be justified by real threats, but it also allows for over reach and an abandonment of core principles.  Peter Baker wrote in the Times just days ago about the similarities (and some differences) between Obama and Bush approaches to combating terrorism.  Altogether, while the President did conclude the Iraq conflict and is on a similar path in Afghanistan, the general consistency of policy illustrates how difficult it is for leaders of large powers once in office to turn corners; to bring about real change.

It is naive to think that great powers like ours will be able to function in the world without employing force.  We didn't get to where we are without it, and we the people have always been both beneficiaries and enablers of aggressive policies and actions.  For years we deplored the close relationships between our leaders in both parties with Middle East Oil despots while at the same time happily purchasing gas-guzzling automobiles.  We speak of due process but were all relieved that our Special Forces team took out Osama bin Laden.  After all, due process is messy and its outcome uncertain.  Sometimes it isn't only that we prefer pulling the lever, we don't even want to sit on the jury.

Having just been through another election cycle, probably the most expensive in American history, many of us are deeply concerned about the overwhelming role of money in our politics.  As a good friend says, we have the best government that money can buy.  I share that concern but actually believe that in equal measure we have the government that we deserve.  These remain hard economic times when many Americans can't find a job or where our kids are looking forward to a life-long burden of education debt.  Just getting through each day is a struggle.  At the same time, if we're honest about it, most of us are happy just going with the flow.  Moral issues raised by drones and the like may evoke some private concern — outrage would be over stating it — but that's about it.  Dinner talk.  The trolley is coming down the tracks.  Thankfully someone else is there to pull the lever because even that much engagement is too much for us.

My book Transcenders: Living beyond religion and the religion wars is now available in print and as an eBook.  Both versions are available at Amazon; the electronic iBooks version can be found at iTunes; a Nook version at Barnes & Noble.

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