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December 13, 2014

Editorial: Lethal Drones and the Interfaith Conference on Drone Warfare

As a child in the 1960s, I was fascinated by remote-control model airplanes being launched from the grounds of a local elementary school near my home. I would watch as the pilots, from the ground, guided the planes to do climbs, dives, loop-de-loops, and long, lazy circles before landing them in the big open field behind the school. It was fun, and it was innocent - and I was amazed by people who could build and fly these little marvels of technology. Little did I know that this very technology would reshape the nature of American warfare and challenge the core of my religious morality.

Back then, drone was not part of my vocabulary. It wasn't until high school that I learned that pilotless aircraft had been used for years - especially during the Cold War. Even then, it seemed pretty benign to me. We were involved in spying and reconnaissance. We were watching "them," and they watched us.

Fast-forward to the "war on terror" that arose out of 9/11. The United States invaded Afghanistan, then Iraq, seeking to squash the forces that had the audacity to attack us on our soil - even though there was no evidence that Iraq was involved at all. Those were the wars we knew about. But soon after, we also began to wage undeclared war on other countries where we believed terrorists were being harbored or trained.

How did we manage to wage war "under the radar"? Through the use of drones - pilotless aircraft substantially more sophisticated than the model planes I remembered as a child, and outfitted to undertake lethal attacks by remote control. We could launch "surgical" attacks that allegedly allowed us to kill only our enemies without forcing us to confront directly the damage we had done.

We could now wage war by using unmanned aircraft piloted by a generation of military recruits raised on video games - games that often involved killing off imaginary enemies. Transfer those skills to the real world, and we could sanitize war by isolating those controlling the killing from those being killed. We could avoid the deaths of our own men and women in uniform and "keep our hands clean."

Or so we thought. Over the last few years, more and more Americans have begun to learn of the death and destruction being wrought by these unmanned vehicles, and they have begun to raise questions. Is drone warfare legal? Is it moral? Is it ethical?

Nowhere have these questions been more prevalent than in the faith community. For many Christians, like me, who have been called upon by Christ to "love our enemies" and "pray for those who persecute us," war, torture, and killing are already anathema. No amount of distance from the killing and destruction can absolve us of our complicity in it. And the victims? They know who is responsible, and it appears that we are creating many more enemies in the process.

People of faith, including me, have a responsibility to shine a light on this abhorrent means of conducting war. We are the ones who must raise the questions to the level of daily discourse, and we are doing just that by organizing the first ever Interfaith Conference on Drone Warfare, scheduled for Jan. 23-25 at Princeton Theological Seminary. We'll be asking the questions I've raised and many more.

We'll examine the nature and use of drones, their advantages and disadvantages, the possibility of more nations and nonstate actors acquiring them, and how they are different from other weapons. We'll look at important domestic and international legal concerns; we'll ask what laws, if any - domestic or international - govern drones, and whether these laws are being applied and obeyed. We'll also consider legal questions about U.S. use of drones. For example, what is the specific authorization for the Obama administration's use of drones?

The age of innocence is long gone. We're far beyond the nonthreatening play of remote-controlled model planes, or even Cold War spying. By beginning this conversation in the religious community, we hope to take a long and hard look at the use of lethal drones and then make policy recommendations to the U.S. government. We will seek to determine what the religious community can do about lethal drones at every level: congregations, regional bodies, ecumenical and interfaith bodies, and nationwide coalitions.

All people of faith are invited to participate in this unprecedented conference on lethal drones. Join us.

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