The Dallas police ended a standoff with the gunman who killed five officers with a tactic that is unprecedented: it blew him up using a robot.
This represents the first time in American history that a drone (wheels for now, maybe wings later) was used to kill an American citizen on American soil.
I get it, I get it.
The Dallas sniper had killed five cops. He was prepared to kill as many more as he could. He was in a standoff with police, and negotiations had broken down. The Supreme Court has made it clear that in cases such as this, the due process clause (i.e., a trial before execution in this instance) does not apply. If not for the robot bomb, the Dallas police would have eventually shot the sniper anyway. They were fully in their legal rights to kill him. None of those issues are in contention. I am not suggesting in any way the cops should have invited the sniper out for tea.
I am suggesting we stop and realize that in 2016 the police used a robot to send in an explosive to blow a person up. I am unaware that such a thing has happened in Russia, North Korea, China, Iran or other places where the rule of law is held by the few in power.
Weapons of War
The robot represents a significant escalation in the tools law enforcement use on the streets of America. Another weapon of war has come home from the battlefields of Iraq and Afghanistan. In the isolated case of the sniper, dead may be dead, whether by explosive or rifle shot. But in the precedent set on the streets of Dallas, a very important line has been crossed.
Here's why this is very bad.
As in Iraq and Afghanistan, it is clear that an escalation in force by the police can only serve to inflame a situation, and trigger a subsequent escalation among those who will then seek to defend themselves against robots sent against them. In America's wars, the pattern of you use a drone, I plant an IED is all to familiar. Will person being blown up by the cops likely soothe community tensions, or exacerbate them? Did the use of other military weaponry calm things in Ferguson, or encourage the anger there to metastasize into other locations?
More Force Sooner?
And will robots increase or decrease the likelihood cops will employ more force sooner in a situation?
"The further we remove the officer from the use of force and the consequences that come with it, the easier it becomes to use that tactic," said Rick Nelson, a fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies and a former counterterrorism official. "It's what we have done with drones in warfare. Yet in war, your object is always to kill. Law enforcement has a different mission."
Who is Responsible?
With a drone, it becomes easier to select the easier wrong of killing over the harder right of complex negotiations and methodical police work. Police officers sign up accepting in some ways a higher level of risk than soldiers, in that cops should be exercising a much more complex level of judgement in when and how to use force. Simply because they can use deadly force -- or can get away with it -- does not make it right. A robot removes risk, and dilutes personal responsibility.
For example, if an individual officer makes a decision to use his/her personal weapon, s/he takes on full responsibility for the outcome. In the case of a robot, the decision is the product of a long chain of command extending far from whomever has a finger on the switch. The same is true for America's drone army abroad. The shooter and the decider are far removed from one another.
Who is responsible? What if we start to believe no one is?