Hassett: The promise and peril of drones


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When Amazon announced Dec. 1 it would begin offering drone delivery as an option for shoppers in the future, the first reaction in my mind was disbelief. Was this an “article” from The Onion that had gone viral? Was it April 1 already?

Alas, further research confirmed: Amazon is very serious about Prime Air. CEO Jeff Bezos told “60 Minutes” host Charlie Rose the service would deploy unmanned aerial vehicles from Amazon’s so-called fulfillment centers, bringing packages to buyers about as quick as a pizza delivery (except you don’t have to tip a drone, at least not until they develop sentience).

Dubbed “octocopters,” the drones bear an uncanny resemblance to a George Foreman grill on stilts. Despite their unassuming appearance, however, many Americans are unsure about whether to allow drone delivery. A Huffington Post/YouGov poll conducted after the announcement found 44 percent of respondents opposed allowing private companies to deliver using unmanned drones, with 31 percent in favor.

Of course, all of this is old news to those in the Middle East and Southern Asia. They’ve seen drone deliveries of a different kind for more than a decade. Beginning in Yemen in 2002, the United States has used aerial Predator drones armed with lethal Hellfire missiles to conduct targeted assassinations of terrorists, as well as to collect surveillance.

Now, the military has moved on to the more technically advanced (and much more deadly) Reaper drone. The name is certainly no accident. Estimates on the number of deaths attributed to these sister drones put the count at around 3,000.

The ethical quandaries that go along with raining fire from the sky are difficult to tackle on their own. Yet when you consider the civilian death toll from these strikes, the policy is morally indefensible. No official count exists, and the Obama administration has dodged the question whenever asked, but third parties estimate between 261 and 891 civilians have been killed by drone strikes.

For those living literally under the threat of drone strikes, going outside means putting oneself at risk. Not only do the people of these nations need to worry about terrorist strikes (which reached a record high of 8,500 attacks in 2012, a 69 percent rise from 2011), they also have to worry about being killed by the ones supposedly there to protect them.

On Dec 5., a few days after Amazon’s news set the industry abuzz, Afghanistan President Hamid Karzai accused the United States of killing seven civilians, including women and children, in a Nov. 20 drone strike. The International Security and Assistance Force denied any citizens were harmed. Because the United States considers any military-age male killed in drone strikes to be a militant (as reported by the New York Times), that line can become kind of fuzzy. 

The timing of Amazon’s announcement juxtaposed with Karzai’s denouncement is striking. Today, Americans are unsure of how Amazon’s drones will work but are nonetheless wowed by the technology. Meanwhile, the people of the Middle East and South Asia, despite lacking access to some of the advancements we take for granted, understand what a drone in the sky means for them.

We look forward to drones. Across the world, they look out for them. In as soon as five years, Amazon claims, Americans could pay a premium to get packages in 30 minutes. But under the drone policies of Bush and Obama, hundreds of innocent people have paid the ultimate price.

I guess it’s all a matter of location.

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