It must be hard being a terrorist these days. Early on a bad guy could operate in the shadows, slink from one bloody job to the next with little fear of exposure. Now, thanks largely to the U.S. drone program, these malignant individuals are being watched from the sky and in some cases eliminated by the press of a button.
Such was the case when Iranian Maj. Gen. Qassim Suleimani, head of the powerful Quds Force, was targeted by a U.S. drone after he landed at the Baghdad airport on Jan. 2. American intelligence forces had been tipped off about the general’s planned visit, and upon arrival he was being observed by an American MQ-9 Reaper drone that was transmitting his movements to the Pentagon and CIA.
Once Suleimani’s motorcade, which included himself and longtime associate Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis in the lead SUV and an assortment of bodyguards in the second vehicle, had skirted the airport’s low perimeter wall topped with barbed wire and reached a safe distance from other travelers and Iraqi officials, the drone fired two missiles. Both laser-guided projectiles slammed into the first car, buckling the metal and setting it ablaze. A third missile followed quickly, destroying the second SUV.
Whether President Trump’s decision to kill one of the most powerful and bloody men in the Middle East was prudent remains to be seen. What is certain is that few Westerners will grieve for a man who guided terrorist cells that have killed hundreds of Americans. The same goes for Mahandis, the Iraqi leader of the Iranian-backed Shia militia Kata’ib Hezbollah, whose supporters had just laid siege to the U.S. embassy in Baghdad.
In the meantime, an entirely new quandary presents itself: If killing bad guys by drone has become this easy, how do we decide which ones and where do we stop? After all, there is no due process. There is no warrant, no arrest, no arraignment and no indictment. Rather there is a drone pilot sitting at a console half a world away controlling a $15 million-pilotless aircraft capable of killing with a precision that defies comprehension.
The drone operator might as well be playing Mortal Kombat for the sterility of the operation. He observes his target, of course, but through a gimbaled eye that reflects none of the gravitas of the moment. There is no heat or cold, no smell of death, no sense of the humanness of the thing that is about to disappear. It is the equivalent of a sniper shooting from a climate-controlled bunker.
I wonder how many of us could do that? The technical prowess alone would eliminate 95 percent but what of the killing side? Clearly it is made easier by the shear meanness of the target but still.
On the other hand, hasn’t someone labeled as a terrorist forfeited his legal rights – and human ones as well? These are people who have killed men, women and children indiscriminately to advance their stated cause. In doing so they have denied humanity a role in their own moral balance.
It seems clear that destroying our enemies by air from pilotless aircraft will only grow in popularity. The success rate and the fact that American lives are not placed in jeopardy as they are with special operations teams or human pilots is appealing. Not to mention that more bad people must be looking not only over their shoulders but into the sky than ever before. Drones may not prove to be a significant deterrent to terrorism, but they have certainly helped to shrink the world’s hiding places.