Drones and Death: Desanitize Killing With a Presidential Signature

The questions about drones raised by Sen. Rand Paul's (R-KY) filibuster should not stop with a single form of technological warfare. They go to the central question of accountability and ethics raised by sanitized, sensationalized killing.

Why is a bomb delivered via drone all that different than a bomb delivered by a piloted F-35? Why is it that different from a precision-guided Tomahawk missile or smart bomb? To the extent that drones are more precise and inflict less "collateral damage" than do bombs or missiles, there might be a difference. To the family of a person killed by American ordnance, however, there really is not much difference at all.

Perhaps the fact that an aircraft pilot risks her life by flying over enemy territory makes the piloted craft a more palatable delivery platform of death, a kind of "fair fight" rationale. That does not stand up to scrutiny, however, when the fighter/bomber's target is a mud hut.

Perhaps a Tomahawk missile fired from a Navy ship feels more like an official act of war than does a remote-control aircraft flown from a game-console mock-up in the safety of a state-side military base. That, too, fails critical questioning when so many offensive maneuvers launched from deployed military assets do not carry the constitutional imprimatur of a formal declaration of war.

And this leads to the real issue: the United States today goes to war without declaring it. Presidents launch attacks without Congress' approval or even consultation. And as if to reassure the American people that it really is no big deal, no need to use the "W" word, the death is delivered in tidy, clean, fresh wrapped, disposable packages. Drones.

Don't worry, Mom! Those video games junior plays on the console are safe and secure, keeping the mess far away from that new wood-toned composite floor you and Dad bought for the family room.

We want to sanitize death. Our grandparents used to buy meat at the butcher, where the cow's carcass hung in the window like a trophy, red ribs and ankle fur on display to prove freshness. Today, we buy vacuum-sealed, saran-wrapped slabs of pre-labeled Grade A beef in the well lit refrigerated section of the grocery store. Blood? Ick!

Sanitizing death is dangerous, though. Industrial scale, efficient death camps, operated far from public view, revealed throughout history what can go wrong when the act of killing is routinized, mechanized, and anonymized.

The sanitization of death results not only from our culture but also from the very institutions we rely upon to maintain our humanity. There exists a gap in our system of leadership.

Our nation's founders did something for the first time in human history: they put a civilian in charge of the military. By naming the democratically elected president, "commander in chief," the founders intended that the people's sensibility would pull rank on the military high command. In practice, however, the President often becomes the puppet of military commanders, precisely the opposite of what our Constitution demands.

I first came to understand this as White House Deputy Staff Secretary. The Staff Secretary is in charge of all documents read or signed by the President, a kind of paperwork traffic cop in the West Wing. President Eisenhower created the position because, as a military man, he was used to having an officer marshal the paper flow to and from the commander.

So many things large and small require the President's signature: from signing a bill into law, to signing a treaty, to signing an Executive Order bringing all flags on federal property to half mast on the occasion of a high-ranking official's death.

One type of action requires no signature at all: killing. If the President wants to order an aircraft carrier battle group to the Med or launch of a SEAL team raid, he need only turn to the senior-most military officer in the room and nod. No paper. No signature. No muss, no fuss.

The National Security establishment believes that this is a good thing. The President should have no cause for hesitation or second-guessing in the heat of battle. The order to kill should come swiftly and easily when need be or else we put our own national security at risk, the argument goes.

I disagree.

Sometimes a procedural step, such as a signature, is exactly what we need most to ensure that the decision maker must literally think twice and proceed only if certain. The warrant clause of the Fourth Amendment does precisely this: unless operating under a judicially recognized exception, the police must take the bureaucratic step of going to a judge and getting a warrant before they can search or seize. While not a perfect analogy because the constitutional rights of American citizens do not apply to foreign "combatants" (what a wonderfully plyable word), the point is that sometimes a little process is a good thing.

The president should have to sign a piece of paper to order death. A document that goes into the Presidential Papers stands as an accountable act for all of history. One step, one physical action, can help to turn back the sanitization of killing we now see in modern warfare. Perhaps President Obama can establish this new procedure himself with a simple Executive Order. Senators Rand Paul and Ron Wyden (D-OR) could introduce a bill amending the National Security Act.

No matter how we get there, requiring a Presidential signature on killing orders would pull back the opaque plastic wrap on official killing.