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Are US drones ethical?

Whether drones should be used in the US is the wrong question. Americans should be asking: Is it ethical to use drones anywhere? Is it fair to search for security for ourselves at the expense of perpetual insecurity for others?

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People gather around a vehicle destroyed by a US drone strike last year that was targeting Al Qaeda-linked militants, in the town of Jaar in southern Yemen, Feb. 1. Op-ed contributor Jack Amoureux says drone coverage in Arab media focuses on 'individuals who speak of the psychological terror from the daily presence of drones.... constantly wondering which patterns of behavior drone controllers find suspicious.'

Khaled Abdullah/Reuters/File

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Recently, concerns about how the US government manages and deploys its fleet of around 7,000 drones have become especially prominent. Drones have become a hot-button issue for a surprisingly diverse set of political actors, but opposition has coalesced around questions of law and procedure, including the constitutional rights of US citizens (those who might be targeted by drone attacks on foreign soil and those whose privacy rights might be violated by surveillance drones over US soil), and the need for greater transparency and regulation.

Some have even raised concerns about the potential use of armed drones by law enforcement in the US. Many companies are now marketing small, armed drones to law enforcement agencies, and some experts see their eventual implementation as “inevitable” – a source of great concern for many.

There is, however, a worrisome void in this debate about US drone policy – the lack of focus on the ethics of drones, whether used domestically or abroad. This neglect puts the United States out of step with the debates that are happening in the areas of the world most affected by drones. Whether or not drones should be employed in the US is the wrong question. Americans should be asking: “Is it ethical to use drones anywhere?”

In researching media coverage of drones over the past 12 years, I have found striking differences in what is reported in the US press relative to Arab media. US news outlets largely ignore pressing ethical questions about drones as a way to wage war and instead fixate on the technological and strategic innovations of drones, their multiple uses, diplomatic intrigue over downed drones in “unfriendly” countries, and whether drone strikes are legal.

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